Running the numbers at Parks

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Sailing class

At our February 16th Parks and Neighborhood Committee meeting, Acting Superintendent Christopher Williams walked us through the 2012 Parks budget. I know, I know,  you may think this sounds dull as dirt. Au contraire!  This is all part of the “continuing education” series we are having in Committee to assure a strategic approach to operating and maintaining the 6000+ acres of our beautiful parks.

You can see the presentation here. It was an interesting and informative conversation. Here are highlights.

Good news and bad news

The good news is that in the past 15 years, Seattle voters have expressed their support for Parks by passing two levies to the tune of $400 million, the 2000 Pro Parks Levy and the 2008 Parks and Green Spaces Levy. That tells us loud and clear that Seattlelites are generous and love our Parks System.

Girls' soccer

The more difficult news is that, as most everyone knows, Seattle’s General Fund has really taken a beating the past few years, as the recession caught up to our region. Revenues from the sales tax, B&O, and others that support the General Fund have been down for several years in a row. Roughly two-thirds of Parks’ operating revenues come from our General Fund. When the General Fund takes a hit, our Parks and Community Centers and swimming pools and boating facilities and every thing else are squeezed.

Japanese Garden

Years of belt-tightening

To balance the 2009-2011 budgets, Parks cut $10.2 million from the department budget – 10 percent of the department budget in 2010, and another 3% in 2011.

Working with staff, managers, directors and neighborhoods, Parks has had to make serious decisions.  None was popular.  Staff took unpaid furloughs and many workers’ hours were reduced; certain wading pools closed; community centers were reorganized and hours changed; ballfield fees and charges increased; the Carkeek Environmental Learning Center (ELC) was impacted; special gardens staff at Volunteer Park and the Japanese gardens were reduced;  paint and metal shop staffing was likewise reduced; the fence crew (despite having miles of fencing to look after) was reduced; and one of three tree crews was eliminated.  103 FTE (Full Time Employee) staff reductions were incurred, including layoffs, reduced hours, reclassifications, and transfers.   

We’ve heard the expression “Do more with less.”  There’s a certain point where any strategic plan requires a department to decide to do less with less.

Medgar Evers Pool

For the 2012 budget that was adopted last November, Parks took an additional 28.8 FTE reduction from 2011, reducing Planning and Development and transferring Special Events staff to the Office of Economic Development. We changed the Community Center management to a geographically “tiered” model with new, reduced staffing arrangements. We’re also installing “people counters” at Community Centers to help us target funding to places that get the most use.

In accordance with forecasted continued stagnation in the economy, Parks is expecting to have to cut even more during this year’s budget process.  No one wants this; it is, however, a fact we must face.

A growing workload

As we are maintaining what we already have in place, new parks are coming online, funded by the levies and neighborhood matching funds. Like many organizations – public and private– in our country, Parks is expected to accomplish more and more with fewer staff  and less money. 

The department is working hard to establish priorities and guiding principles to make sure the most important needs are met.  Their top priorities include continuing to make parks accessible to all citizens, and stewarding the system that we have, and building a bridge to sustainable funding.

Atlantic City boat ramp

Getting creative about sustainable long-term funding

Parks, and my committee, are looking  for other ways to generate revenue and cut costs.  We’re inviting the public to join us – for example, March 7, Parks is holding a public meeting to discuss operating issues at the Volunteer Park Conservatory. (March 7 from 7 – 8:30 p.m. at the Montlake Community Center, 1618 E. Calhoun St.)

When it comes to sustainable long-term funding, we’ve talked a lot about part

Off-leash dog parks

nerships and volunteers.  We’ve talked about our partnership with the UW at the Arboretum and whether that model might be built on elsewhere, for example, in the Volunteer Park Conservatory. (The UW owns the plant collections and manages the functions of the Arboretum and its public programs and activities. The Center for Urban Horticulture, an academic unit in the UW College of Forest Resources, is charged with overall administration of the Arboretum. The City is responsible for all infrastructure support, turf, security, the Waterfront Trail, Japanese Garden, and native plant areas.)  We’re also working closely with the Seattle Parks Foundation, an important non-profit with great ideas.

With the Ruth Williams estate giving a quarter of a million dollars to the Japanese Garden Society, we’ve talked about placing the Japanese Gardens under some sort of separate governance model that would reduce the city’s contribution. We’re looking at alternative operating models for certain community centers, such as the new Rainier Beach Community Center, slated to open in 2014. We’re looking for interested partners through an RFI process, such as the YMCA, to help us keep the center operating at full capacity. (Parks is having an open house about this March 6, at 7 p.m. at South Shore K-8 School Rotunda.)

In committee last week, we talked about the possibility of Parks getting more grants to supplement revenue. Christopher noted that grant-writing is a specialized skill; indeed it would be ideal to have a Development manager as well as a grant writer on board in Parks. Perhaps some of that work could be done by interns or volunteers, but even managing interns and volunteers requires staff time.

Parks is a much beloved department, and  complicated with many functions that we want to keep strong. This was the start of that conversation.  I’m looking forward to continuing it throughout the year and saving the programs we want to save, and growing those we can afford.