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Environmental groups push city to spend more on park maintenance

Thursday, July 18, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

In an effort to thwart what they term a “slow motion crisis” in the city’s parks, several Austin environmental groups are taking it upon themselves to get city officials to add $4.75 million to the Parks and Recreation Department’s FY2014 budget. The effort, spearheaded by Pease Park Conservancy Chair Richard Craig, would bring more funding for trees, pools, trails, and basic park maintenance.


Craig and the Pease Park Conservancy are working with Tree Folks, Austin Parks Foundation, the Trail Foundation, Keep Austin Beautiful and the Shoal Creek Conservancy. “We’ve just seen the problems and we keep thinking every year somebody will step up and correct it, and nobody has,” said Craig. “We’ve let this go on too long, frankly, and it’s time to step up and speak out.”


Park grounds appearance has been something of a moving target for PARD Director Sarah Hensley and her team: After only 71 percent of those surveyed were satisfied with the appearance of park grounds, they department dropped its goal from 85 percent to 70 percent this year.


Craig points to problems with park structures that are “essentially being demolished by neglect” because of a lack of money to make what were initially simple repairs that bloom into bigger problems after leaks develop and animals invade. He also remembers buying painters’ tape for the department so that they could repaint basketball courts – a job that is hard to complete without that basic item.


“To save a little money on a day-to-day basis, we’re kicking the can down the road and ending up paying more for big fixes than we would if we took care of business every year,” said Craig.


“They have the funding to pick up the trash, clean the restrooms, and mow the grass once a month,” Craig continues. “Forestry is responsible for something like 300,000 trees and with their current staffing levels…if they went to each tree, it would take them 91 years to get back to the first tree.”


Craig says that at this point, the city has only the time and resources to address dangerous trees, not perform needed care. He further notes that the situation is developing during one of the worst droughts Austin has ever seen – one that Craig notes has caused the loss of 10 percent of the city’s tree canopy.


“(The forestry division) had more people working for it to take care of Austin’s trees in 1992 than they do today, even though they are responsible for three times the amount of acreage,” said Craig. “We’re just trying to get back to where we were. We once had a great parks system but we let things slide.”


Overall, PARD has 111 full time staffers maintaining over 19,500 acres of parkland spread across 270 square miles of the city.


Craig explains that the increased funding is necessary to bring the Parks Department back to where they need to be, saying that the department has never been fully restored after budget cuts during the financial crises of 2000 and 2008.


PARD’s FY2014 budget request is for $54.3 million, an increase of $2.2 million over the previous year.


If approved, $28 million of that number would go to community services, $5.4 million to support services and other needs, and about $18.7 million would be directed towards parks, planning and development.


In her FY2014 financial forecast, Hensley explained that the increase would include the addition of 31 full time positions to operate and maintain the newly added district parkland and trails, as well as management of the city cemeteries. (In a breakdown of the budget requests, the largest expense is $1.2 million for 26 full time positions in cemeteries management and operations, which Hensley notes is a “new line of business” for the department.)


Those advocating for more maintenance funds will present their case during the upcoming budget process, which begins in earnest next month.


“It’s a crazy thing here in Austin. We consider ourselves such a green city, and we’re so smug about… yet we’re not doing the basic stuff that Waco or Lubbock would do in their parks,” said Craig. “It’s a disconnect.”

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