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Editorial: Parks become refuges of disrepair

Larry Hoover ticks off an inventory of neglect: weeds left to grow for weeks, trash strewn in underbrush, fallen-down fences and barren patches, especially where the weekly farmers market sets up.

Then he points to the signs at Roosevelt Park that proclaim, "The Pride of Sacramento," and laughs ruefully. "Is this the pride of Sacramento? It's a dump, and it doesn't need to be."

In 2002, Roosevelt won the prize as the best-maintained park in the city. These days, as for too many city parks, its upkeep has declined to a point that many loyal visitors are disgusted.

Three years of spending cuts are taking their toll. The city has cut its budget for parks maintenance in half since 2007, to $7.3 million, and cut its number of parks employees by a similar percentage, to 77.

The result: less frequent mowing, weeding and watering. Garbage is picked up less often. Sports fields are no longer routinely reseeded. While the city's largest parks – Land, McKinley and Miller – have their own crews, one- or two-person crews are responsible for between nine and 14 smaller parks each.

The city just recently launched a software system to track work orders, so it doesn't know exactly how far behind it is on routine maintenance. (It plans about $4.3 million in major repairs and upgrades by 2014.)But with city maintenance crews stretched so thin, the potential is there for vandalism or deterioration to go unaddressed for too long.

Since the budget constraints and staffing shortages are not going away anytime soon, the city has to be creative and open to different ways of doing business. There are talks under way with the Twin Rivers school district to have city and school crews take turns mowing neighboring school and city fields. The city should sign that agreement, talk with other school districts and also look into more coordination with Sacramento County where city parks are close to county parks. In addition, the City Council needs to be willing to explore further private maintenance contracts, beyond the ones for seven parks in North Natomas and for bike trails.

In the meantime, the city is relying more on neighborhood groups and other volunteers. Its Adopt-a-Park program has tripled in size since just last year – to 35 parks and about 120 hours a month. In particular, the city wants skilled help in weeding, pruning trees and shrubs and fixing up sports fields. (To pitch in, call (916) 808-2285.)

To hear some neighborhood leaders tell it, the city isn't doing enough to reach out, and is letting bureaucracy get in the way. Dave Mitchell, parks operations manager, blames miscommunication; his department will work with anyone who wants to help, he says.

Whatever the case, the city ought to make it as painless as possible for residents and park users to get involved. There are six supervisors in charge of parks in different areas of the city. How about putting their contact information on signs at every park?

There is certainly plenty to do.

In Land Park, for instance, the city maintenance crew has been cut from 15 to six. In stepped a volunteer corps, which since May already has grown to more than 300 members who have donated time, money or both. It has raised more than $10,000 and over five Saturdays has completed 29 projects – everything from picking up debris, to trimming bushes and trees, to skimming the pond. It is trying to find a tree care company to donate its services, and in November plans to brief park lovers in other neighborhoods on how to start volunteer corps of their own.

"I don't think it's an ideal situation. It's a sad situation," says coordinator Craig Powell. "But rather than just carp about it, we're doing something about it."

Not every neighborhood, however, has the same wherewithal – people with time, energy and money. To depend too much on volunteers could create unacceptable disparities in the upkeep of parks. And, as Mitchell acknowledges, it's unrealistic to expect volunteers to do the city's job for the long haul.

McKinley Park in east Sacramento is subject to a double whammy: It is used by residents from across the city, making it more difficult to recruit volunteers. And as one of the city's busiest parks, there's more wear and tear. Where it used to have a six-person maintenance crew to itself, it now shares a two-person crew with six other parks. The McKinley East Sacramento Neighborhood Association is helping with flowers, supplies and volunteers for the welcome garden, playground and rose garden, but it's not enough.

"For a centerpiece park, we're concerned that it's just deteriorating," says Nancy Cornelius, the association's president. "We're horrified at what we're seeing."

The association complains about algae and gunk in the duck pond, bushes that badly need pruning, overflowing garbage cans, even weeds overrunning the famous rose garden. One weekend this month, a bench was broken in two and wrapped with yellow caution tape. It looked like a crime scene.

At Roosevelt Park, the situation is as much farce as crime, says Hoover, who has taken on park issues for the Saratoga Townhomes Association.

He is exasperated by what he describes as a nightmarish runaround trying to engage the city on repairs and upgrades and on starting a volunteer program. Exhibit A: His account of his travails trying to get the city to find and fill a hole.

Hoover, who lives across Q Street from the park, says it was early last year when he spotted a growing hole, apparently caused by a broken sprinkler. A ceramic tile placed over the hole was quickly broken. An orange cone was put on top. He told the city, but nothing happened. He contacted the city again, but was told that workers couldn't find the hole. A crew fixed the sprinkler, but left behind the tile, cone and broken pieces of irrigation pipe. He called again. The debris was removed, but the hole wasn't filled. He contacted the city again. Finally, the job was finished. In all, it took about three months, Hoover says.

"The bureaucracy tries to get you to wear out," he says. "I ain't wearing out. I don't want to be a gadfly. I want to be a concerned citizen helping the city." (While Hoover offers a string of e-mails as evidence, the city disputes that it has not been responsive. After inquiries from The Bee, it sent a letter Wednesday addressing many of Hoover's questions. He also reported that a city crew came out Wednesday and took care of much of the maintenance backlog.)

Sacramento is fortunate to have park lovers willing to chip in; the city should be as inviting as possible to capitalize on that enthusiasm and commitment. In these tough times, our parks can use all the help they can get.