“Restore the $8 million!” parks advocates plead to City Council (UPDATED)

Schoolchildren joined the Philadelphia Parks Alliance at the city budget hearing yesterday for the Department of Parks and Recreation, demanding that the city hold up its end of a promise to fund parks by another $8 million.

“Restore the $8 million! Restore the $8 million!” the audience inside City Council chambers yelled every time another Council member started asking questions of Parks and Recreation Commissioner Michael DeBerardinis and his deputy commissioners.

That figure is the amount of revenue from a 2008 parking tax increase passed by Mayor Michael Nutter that was supposed to serve as a dedicated funding source for parks through the Department of Parks and Recreation, raising its budget by more than 40 percent over four years to $71.4 million in 2013.

Instead, the department’s current proposed budget for 2013 is $47.8 million, with $2.1 million of it resulting from an accounting change, not increased allocations.

“We came out in support of [the parking tax increase] because the revenue was promised to go to the parks,” said Frank Chance of Friends of Clark Park, one of an estimated 180 organizations within the alliance. “As you know, there was a little bit of an economic crisis after that and the money went to other things. We know about economic crises and were understanding at that time, but it’s been four years.”

“We haven’t seen one cent,” said Lauren Bornfriend, executive director of the alliance. “Enough is enough.”

It’s no secret that the expansive Fairmount Park system has received the same level of funding – give or take $2 million or $3 million – for the past four decades. Since the early 1970s, the city has annually allocated $12 million to $15 million per year, according to the city’s longtime Fairmount Park top official, Mark Focht.

Chance and others said that the recession also resulted in a steep increase in park usage — between 20 and 30 percent over the last four years. The circumstances put added stress on park facilities and make the lack of a funding increase sting even more.

“Park usage is up, but the park is suffering from it,” Michael Burch of east Parkside agreed. “You can clearly see that mowing the grass isn’t happening on a regular basis. There are no trash cans in the park. The picnic areas are looking really shabby – you can see holes in the roofs. It’s clearly suffering from a lack of maintenance and care, and that’s endemic to the entire park system.”

Safety slacks

Councilman Curtis Jones, who oversees more park land than any other district council person, also raised the issue of safety.

“In my district alone in our park facilities, we’ve had four homicides, seven rapes, 63 robberies, 67 aggravated assaults, 840 thefts and five auto thefts. That only resulted in, in parks, 92 arrests and in rec centers, 55 arrests,” he said.

DiBerardinis said that the department is in the process of addressing those concerns and has begun by increasing the number of facilities equipped with surveillance cameras from two to 25. The department will also begin to meet monthly with police command staff to identify recreation centers most in need of increased security.

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