Open spaces, closed files

Original Reporting | By Abby FerlaCraig Gurian |

Dec. 7, 2011 — Why doesn’t the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation have facility-by-facility information on operating costs, staffing, and utilization on its website or otherwise readily available?

The Parks Department operates more than 1,700 parks and other recreation facilities. Some parks — most notably Central Park — receive substantial funding from private sources while others rely wholly on public funding. The issue of whether there is equity in funding between and among parks — and the related question of whether and to what extent to rely on private as opposed to public funding — has been raised over the years. Its relevance today is underlined by the fact that the staffing level of the Parks Department is down at least 30 percent since 1986, its peak since 1980. (Some argue that staffing has, in reality, dropped even more dramatically because 1,600-plus seasonal workers who had been working full-time were omitted from the count of full-time workers until 2008.)

Central Park:
showered with private largess

Central Park is the beneficiary of what has become a very wealthy partner: the Central Park Conservancy. According to the Conservancy’s 2010 annual report:

> the organization had net assets of $187,365,000;

> utilized 273 staff members, all but 26 of whom were Conservancy employees and not Parks Department employees;

> paid salaries and benefits totalling $18,338,000; and

> had total expenses of $33,920,000.

In approaching this article, it seemed apparent that using facility-by-facility information as to operating costs, staffing, and utilization would help the Parks Department manage its operations in a way to ensure equity and to assess the proper role of private versus public funding. Those same data would allow for easy outside analysis and oversight. This expectation was fueled by the fact that the Bloomberg and his Administration has, for 10 years, prided itself on being data-driven.

Several long-time observers of the city’s park system thought this kind of information was essential to have available — both as a basic matter of good management and as data to help assess the issues of equity and funding. But facility-by-facility information is not available on the Parks Department’s website, and the Department neither had the information at hand nor was willing to provide a representative to be interviewed by Remapping Debate. Advocates have told Remapping Debate that this is in line with the Parks Department’s record of being resistant to the kind of transparency that the collection and dissemination of facility-by-facility data would provide.


A multi-tiered system?

In 2007, the Citizens Budget Commission, a non-profit budgetary watchdog, released a report that The New York Times characterized as “the latest analysis to suggest that city parks have devolved into a multi-tiered system, with parks operated by nonprofit groups like the Central Park Conservancy and the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation at the top, and parks that are in poor neighborhoods and are run by the Parks Department at the bottom.”

An Oct. 2011 report from New Yorkers for Parks gave 80 percent of large parks surveyed a grade of “A” or “B,” but noted that the “quality of large parks varies widely even within neighborhoods.” According to the group, the report found that, in an era of shrinking maintenance dollars for park staff, “parks with active volunteer groups have better overall maintenance.”

Melissa Mark-Viverito, chair of the New York City Council’s Committee on Parks and Recreation, told Remapping Debate that she was concerned about disparities in park maintenance.  The parks with conservancies, she said, “are great and taken care of, but what happens to the other parks in terms of the level of attention and upgrades and repairs?”

What we wanted

On Nov. 16, we emailed the following requests to a representative of the Parks Department:


Each request is for the current fiscal year (as opposed to the broader historical information for which we originally asked). Each request is for park-by-park information, or, to put it another way, for each and all of the facilities (parks, playgrounds, gyms, pools, etc.) maintained by the Parks Department. Each request is for expense information (not for capital expenditures).

1. Funds allocated per facility where the original source of the funds is public. By public we mean: (a) money originating from the city, regardless of whether the funds were specifically allocated by the City Council, a Borough President, or otherwise (“local public money”); and (b) money originating from New York State or an agency or subdivision of New York State other than New York City (“state public money”); and (c) money originating from the federal government or any agency or entity of the federal government (“federal public money”); and (d) other public money.

To the extent that there is funding that is not dedicated to a particular facility, we would still like facility-by-facility information to the extent that your data assign a value to the costs attributable to each individual facility.

2. Funds allocated per facility where the original source of the funds is private. By private we mean: (a) money originating from foundations; and (b) money originating from individuals; and (c) money originating from corporations or other business entities; and (d) money otherwise originating from a private source.

To the extent that there is funding that is not dedicated to a particular facility, we would still like facility-by-facility information to the extent that your data assign a value to the costs attributable to each individual facility.

3. Full-time staff (or full-time staff equivalent) per facility. By full-time staff equivalent we mean: (a) part-time staff whose aggregated time equals some number of full-time staff workers; and (b) staffers who are not dedicated to a particular park but who spend time in particular parks, allocating time as the appropriate fractional equivalent of a full-time staff member.

Please advise as to how much time you estimate it will take to gather the information.


We would like to interview the appropriate person or persons at Parks who could speak to the following issues:

1. pros and cons of relying on (or utilizing, if you prefer) private funds.

2. how the availability or lack of availability of private funds has an impact on the decision of how to allocate public funds.

3. the Department’s view of the utility or lack of utility of having and regularly utilizing facility-by-facility data of the type sought here.

Please advise as to who we can speak to (and when).

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