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Does Austin spend enough on parks?

Thursday, November 19, 2015 by Jack Craver

The Parks and Recreation Department is growing. And, though the department’s funding is much larger now than in past years, department leaders say Austin isn’t spending nearly enough on parks to keep the city competitive with other parks systems across the country.

At $75 million, the 2016 General Fund budget approved for the department by City Council is nearly 50 percent greater than the $51.8 million the department spent during the 2013 fiscal year and 6 percent greater than the $70 million the department was given for the 2015 fiscal year.

The largest increase came last year, when PARD’s budget rose 19 percent at a time when other departments also saw large budget hikes. Health and Human Services, the Austin Police Department, the Austin Fire Department and Emergency Management Services all saw their budgets jump between 17 and 20 percent, while funding for libraries rose 36 percent.

City spokeswoman Shelley Parks told the Austin Monitor that the department is not spending all that much more than in previous years but that its budget now includes costs that used to be part of the city’s General Fund.

“Beginning in FY 2014‐15, certain administrative and personnel cost centers have been allocated to individual departments,” said Parks in an email. “In prior years, these expenditures were budgeted for in aggregate at the General Fund level.”

A recent department budget brief includes a number of metrics illustrating that the city’s spending produces a top-notch parks system. At 22 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents, Austin’s ratio of city parkland to population is significantly higher than that of Chicago (12); Portland, Oregon (14); Fort Worth (12); Seattle (7); or Minneapolis (5). The brief states that New York City and Virginia Beach had higher ratios, at 39 acres and 25 acres per 1,000 residents, respectively.

However, a report by the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit advocacy group that compiled estimates based on total parkland (in addition to city lands), said New York City had only 4.6 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents. Asked about the competing figures, PARD directed comment to Park Development Coordinator Randy Scott, who could not say why the city’s estimate for New York City was so much higher.

In a statement included in the budget briefing, PARD Director Sara Hensley also touted a number of accolades bestowed on the city’s parks system, including Austin’s ranking in the top 10 cities for urban forests by American Forests, a national conservation group.

However, compared to the same cities as above, Austin spends the second-lowest amount per capita on parks and provides the fewest number of playgrounds per capita. And the report from the Trust for Public Land, Austin ranks 31st out of the nation’s 75 largest cities in park excellence.

“We do well with park acres as a percentage of city acres; unfortunately, we do not fare well in terms of facilities and investment,” said Angela Means, PARD’s financial services division manager, in a presentation to the Parks and Recreation Board earlier this month.

Board Vice Chair Richard DePalma urged officials to develop a report that compares Austin’s current spending on parks to spending in past decades.

“This is something that’s been desperately needed. Back when the Council members were running for office, a number of them asked me what that picture looks like,” DePalma said. “They know the perceived takeaway, that libraries and parks receive less money than they used to, and they want to be able to draw a picture of how true that actually is.”

PARD’s budget increase in 2016, while small relative the increase the year before, is in line with the 5 or 6 percent increases authorized for other major departments in 2016, with the notable exceptions of police and libraries, whose funding rose 12 and 15 percent, respectively.

While the parks department raises money from a number of its programs, those programs’ contribution to the department’s budget actually decreased from $10.8 million last year to $10.6 million this year. In the upcoming fiscal year, the city General Fund will account for 86.1 percent of the department’s funding. The Golf Enterprise Fund, which collects money from green fees that are devoted to running city golf courses, accounts for 9 percent, while expense refunds and grants account for 4.7 percent and 0.2 percent, respectively.

Photo by WhisperToMe (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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