Upkeep in Philly parks falters with funding constraints

Parks advocates say maintaining clean recreational facilities is not a city priority, but would decrease crime, obesity.TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Parks advocates say maintaining clean recreational facilities is not a city priority, but would decrease crime, obesity.TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 14, 2012

At Christy Recreation Center in West Philadelphia, the air-conditioning doesn't work, turning the gym into an unusable sauna in hot weather. Broken gym doors leave only one working exit, a potential fire hazard. Rain regularly floods the arts-and-crafts room, drips into light fixtures and swells ceiling panels until they're puffed and brown, like roasted marshmallows.

"This place is a wreck," said Thelma Jones-Benbow, president of Christy's advisory council.

Even as Philadelphia has developed showcase outdoor parks, winning Mayor Nutter national acclaim for his efforts to increase green space and create an environmentally friendly city, Parks and Recreation facilities in many areas remain neglected.

At Stinger Square in Grays Ferry, benches are broken and the bathroom is run-down, dingy, and often closed. Near Laurel Hill mansion in Fairmount Park, where hundreds of kids play soccer every weekend in warm weather, bathrooms smelled of urine, lights were out, and some stalls were missing doors during a recent tour led by parks advocates.

"Facilities are just going to go fallow. They're going back to nature," said Walter Marlin, a member of the Finley Recreation Center friends group in the city's Stenton section.

The lack of upkeep is about more than appearances, said Lauren Bornfriend, executive director of the Philadelphia Parks Alliance, an advocacy group. Delaying work on a leaky ceiling may result in a bill for a new roof, she argues.

"We're turning $500 problems into $500,000 problems," she said.

On that point, everyone interested in city parks seems to agree. The historic merger of the Fairmount Park Commission with the city's Parks and Recreation Department, approved by voters in 2008 and largely completed last year, was intended to improve care of the parks. In theory, shifting control of Fairmount Park from an appointed board to the city would improve accountability and increase the likelihood that the mayor and City Council would spend more money on parks.

Nutter even came up with a plan to do that: He and Council increased the parking tax in 2008, with a plan — the advocates call it a promise — to use some of the revenue to help pay for $8 million in new funding for Parks and Rec.

But the recession crushed city finances beginning in 2008, and the new parking tax revenues went into the general budget instead of parks and recreation.

Bornfriend and other parks advocates say it's time for Nutter to make good on his pledge. Some on City Council, including Maria Quiñones Sánchez and Mark Squilla, support boosting the department's maintenance budget, though they say the increase, if it happens at all, is likely to be about $1.5 million because of competing needs, most notably schools. Squilla has proposed adding a $2 surcharge to parking tickets to be spent to keep up parks and recreation facilities, but it's not clear that will pass.

"On the list of things that are priorities, parks and recreation are not the loudest priority," said City Controller Alan Butkovitz, who has catalogued dangerous conditions caused by poor upkeep at parks and recreation centers. Butkovitz said the city should consider closing some rec centers if it can't figure out how to pay for maintenance of perilously decrepit facilities.

Nutter's press secretary, Mark McDonald, said the mayor showed his commitment to parks and recreation by maintaining funding this year while cutting in many other areas.

"We are coping with the aftereffects of a devastating recession, and the entire government has had to tighten belts," he said. "We have not been able to make the investments that we would have wanted, but we've also become more efficient in the wake of the fiscal downturn."

Parks advocates and others, however, say clean, safe recreational facilities will help Nutter achieve other goals, including reducing crime and childhood obesity.

"I believe firmly that lack of adequate funding in education and places like parks and recreation are showing many of the adverse effects facing our city, as it relates to crime, poverty, as it relates to obesity," said Kamau Stanford, community engagement director at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker campus in West Philadelphia, just across from Conestoga Playground, where the equipment is old and poison ivy sprouts from a tree.

Parks and Recreation Commissioner Michael DiBerardinis has good news for that neighborhood: Conestoga will get $700,000 in upgrades, starting in about a year.

Nutter brought in DiBerardinis, who had been recreation commissioner under Mayor Ed Rendell, to oversee the merger and head the combined department. During his tenure, the department has raised about $34 million in private, state, and federal funds, money that has kept pools open, refurbished three ice rinks, and helped maintain some afterschool rec center programs.

The national conservation nonprofit Trust for Public Land recently ranked the park system 10th among the 40 largest cities, with access to playgrounds and park lands Philadelphia's greatest asset.

But the department lacks funds for maintenance. In the last two years, daily custodial care was eliminated at dozens of Philadelphia's 130 recreational facilities. Those cutbacks hit a staff that was small to begin with. About 600 people now work for Parks and Recreation. That number has remained unchanged for more than a decade despite adding the care of Fairmount Park's 9,200 acres to its responsibilities.

DiBerardinis said thieves stripped the air conditioner at Christy Recreation Center of its metal, rendering it useless. Replacement of the concrete floor was already in the pipeline, he said, and the doors were to be replaced at that time. But after an interview with The Inquirer last week, DiBeradinis said the doors would be repaired immediately so that all exits work. The leaky roof also is scheduled for repair.

Stinger presents more of a challenge, he said, because there is no money for a custodian to clean up each day and do maintenance.

"Like all commissioners, I'd like more funds," DiBerardinis said. "We're doing a good job with what we have."

The department has never had much. Its $48 million budget is the same as it was 40 years ago, according to the parks advocates. By almost any measure, Philadelphia ranks near the bottom in parks spending compared with other cities. The cities that spend the most on parks on a per capita basis — San Francisco, Seattle and Minneapolis — each lay out $200 or more a year per resident. Philadelphia? Just $64.

So how is it that Philadelphia has added new parks, such as Sister Cities in Logan Square, and overhauled others, including Hunting Park and Clemente Playground in Spring Garden?

Those are capital projects, which are easier to fund than routine maintenance. City Council members have kicked in funds for those parks from their own capital budgets, as have private donors and state and federal governments.

Raising money to pay for basic maintenance is another matter; those dollars must come from the city's strained operating budget.

Schuylkill Park, Rittenhouse Square, and others that are verdant and clean get help from private sources, said Derek Freres, who is on the board of several park friends' groups.

"Those parks all have extremely strong friends groups that are able to raise a lot of money for capital projects," he said.

Friends of Rittenhouse Square, for example, raised $417,000 for upkeep and maintenance of that park in fiscal 2010, according to its most recent tax return.

Not every neighborhood has that kind of money. Even in those that do, the people who run park-friendly groups say the city's help is critical.

"We need the mayor's leadership on this," Bornfriend said.

Contact Miriam Hill at 215-854-5520 or hillmb@phillynews.com or on Twitter @miriamhill. Read the City Hall politics blog at www.heardinthehall.com.?

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