City’s Parks Alliance to council: ‘Show us the money’

Where is the money that the city promised to the Parks and Recreation department?

That’s what members of city council and the Philadelphia Parks Alliance asked during a gathering at City Hall on Wednesday, May 16.

Four years ago, the city approved a 20 percent tax on parking charges for anyone using a garage or parking structure in Philadelphia.

The department never saw a penny of these funds.

To support local parks, neighbors have partnered with area businesses, like at Hetzell’s playground at Thompson Street and Columbia Avenue, where advertising has helped defray costs.

But John Consolvo, vice president of the Fishtown Neighbors Association — who was in attendance last week — said that while outside funding worked at Hetzell’s playground, he supported the Parks Alliance’s push for new funding because in the riverwards, parks mean so much to the community.

“When you live in the city, you don’t have yards. So, where else are you going to meet?” he asked.

“Parks mean community,” agreed FNA’s Kristie Landry.

The funds generated through the parking tax were meant to be set aside for the Parks and Recreation departments — the two departments that merged in 2010 — and, according to numbers presented by the Philadelphia Parks Alliance last week, would have provided about $8 million to the city’s parks.

Instead, that money went into the city’s general fund. This parking tax is still collected and the money still goes into the general fund.

Last week, Lauren Bornfriend, director of the Philadelphia Parks Alliance, lamented the loss of funding and asked council members to take a hard look at the parks’ budget.

“[Parks and Recreation] has suffered decades of neglect and now, four years of broken promises,” she told a gathered audience last Wednesday.

Bornfriend said that the funding isn’t enough to support the 609 employees of the department, who need to maintain 156 recreational facilities, 254 playgrounds, 405 ball fields, 465 basketball courts, 70 pools, 220 miles of trails and other concerns spread across Philadelphia’s more than 10,000 acres of parks.

Next year’s proposed budget for the department — currently set at $47.8 million — she said, is actually less than the proposed figure, as it includes about $2.1 million that the department previously received from other sources.

She reminded those in attendance that in 2009, Mayor Michael Nutter and City Council approved a $56 million operating budget for Parks and Recreation.

Instead, due to the economic downturn, next year’s budget would actually amount to about $45.7 million — one of the lowest in the last ten years.

Several councilmembers, including Mark Squilla (D-1st dist.) were in attendance at last week’s event to find ways to bridge the parks’ “significant funding gap.”

Councilman Squilla had an idea of his own in order to raise the additional funding for the department.

He looked at parking to raise funds, but this time focusing on parking violations. He suggested an additional $2 surcharge to parking tickets, which would bring in about $2 million a year in new funding.

However, due to a parking fine surcharge that’s already on the books, revenue from any surcharge to PPA fines might need to be split between the School District and the city’s general fund.

Squilla said his office has heard “conflicting legal opinions” about what would happen with any funds generated through his idea for a $2 surcharge on parking tickets.

He said his office is now looking into this issue.

“If we do not fix this now, things will just cost double, triple to fix down the road,” he said of the Parks and Rec. budget.

Squilla said anyone with ideas is welcome to contact his office with proposals to raise funding for the Parks and Rec. department.

Star Staff Reporter Hayden Mitman can be contacted at 215–354–3124 or hmitman@bsmphilly.com.