Parks and Recreation lacks $2.4 million in funding, potentially faces more cuts
As the question of property tax caps continues to loom in the state Legislature, city departments are wrestling to pare down their budgets in anticipation of what management expects to be a $51.7 million gap in funding for the entire city by 2022 (estimate made per 2.5 percent rollback rate).
For the Parks and Recreation Department, this mandated pruning means only a $4.5 million increase in the budget for 2020 to fund some critical unmet needs.
Parks and Recreation Board members who were listening to the April 23 presentation of the PARD budget unanimously recommended that City Council approve the funding of $2.4 million in unmet department costs as well as additional lighting in parks and increasing park ranger staff commensurate with national best practices for like-sized communities.
Board Member Rich DePalma noted that in spite of the impending budget cuts, it was imperative that the board make recommendations. “This will be the first time since I’ve been on the board that we’ve had formal input on the budget,” he said. DePalma has served on the board since 2015.
As with every year, the majority of PARD money is funneled to highly visible community services like personnel and public swimming pools. Last year, 55 percent of the budget was allocated to these functions as the department has grown by 55.5 full-time employees since 2014.
Still, said Sara Hensley, director of the Parks and Recreation Department, these positions do not cover everything the department needs. She pointed out that there is a particular lack of park rangers. “We’re way, way, way below – so below, we don’t even have enough park rangers to say we’re going to put two in every district,” she said. According to her, on any given shift the city averages nine park rangers on duty.
Other areas are also lacking staff. Aquatics, recycling and recreation centers are specifically listed as areas where Parks and Rec requires additional boots on the ground to serve Austin residents.
In addition to gaps in staffing, there is a lack of funding for park maintenance. “It’s been estimated at $600 million or higher,” said Suzanne Piper, PARD’s chief administrative officer. Although there is no ask for additional funding to shore up the backlog of maintenance requests, Piper warned, “The longer we wait, it’s going to be more expensive.”
Despite the funding issues, Austin citizens appear to be happy with their parks. David Hillers, a financial analyst with Parks and Rec, noted that Austin is “consistently above the national average for parks satisfaction.” On average, parks have a 64 percent satisfaction rate, while Austin’s parks scored a 79 percent satisfaction rate in 2018.
These scores, however, are based on the ETC Institute Direction Finder, which DePalma pointed out doesn’t include other major municipalities that Austin is typically benchmarked against, such as Seattle, Minneapolis and New York City. “I feel it is a misrepresentation when we say this is how we measure up,” he told the Austin Monitor.
Nevertheless, Board Member Francoise Luca pointed out that one of the reasons for Austin’s high scores is likely due to the department’s focus on frontline staff. She suggested that the department “put our efforts to frontline staff to provide the services that we need.”
Director Hensley agreed, saying that from the staff’s point of view, “the priority for us is boots on the ground.”
Despite Parks and Rec being woefully underfunded, Hensley pointed out that even with the board’s recommendation for additional funding, “It’s very possible that none of that will get in.” Depending on how the property tax cap bills play out at the state level, she said, “I’m worried that we’ll be making serious reductions.”
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