Sacramento has more parks than it used to, but those parks are less well tended.
Total park acreage in Sacramento has nearly quadrupled in the last 30 years. At the same time, the number of employees responsible for cleaning bathrooms, mowing lawns, emptying garbage cans and performing other maintenance tasks has dropped more than 15 percent, according to city data.
A status report from the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation – prepared for Tuesday’s City Council meeting – shows that the city’s maintenance staff remains depleted from years of budget cuts, despite the restoration of some of that money after the 2012 passage of Measure U, a temporary tax hike. Unless a new funding source is identified, the department warns that service levels will fall further as the city continues to open new parks.
In 1980, the department employed one maintenance employee for each 5.4 acres of park land, data shows. In 2016, that figure will be one employee per 23 acres.
“The challenge that we face is that when we go to develop and build parks, the funding on the other end for maintenance is forgotten in the budgeting for a park,” said Shannon Brown, operations manager for the Department of Parks and Recreation.
The number of developed park acres in the city grew from 800 to 2,820 between 1980 and 2015. Sacramento now boasts 180 developed parks, plus 46 other sites like nature preserves and trails.
The Park Operations division’s budget for the 2015-16 fiscal year is $15.6 million. The available funding is distributed among Sacramento parks based on how much is necessary to guarantee a basic, equal level of service for all facilities. Some of those services include turf care, weed control, tree pruning, litter removal and restroom cleaning. Funding is categorized as insufficient for renovations, pest management and the development of greenery through fertilization and seeding.
“The city’s parks department is barely able to put Band-Aids on badly neglected problems in our parks,” said Craig Powell, president and lead coordinator of the Land Park Volunteer Corps. The Land Park group is one of a number of volunteer organizations around the city that now perform duties traditionally done by park maintenance staff.
Brown called such volunteer groups “a huge help.”
23 Number of acres per parks worker in Sacramento in 2016
5.4 Number of acres per parks worker in Sacramento in 1981
“We have many communities who have picked up their local parks,” Brown said. “If we didn’t have the communities’ help, the parks would be in even worse shape.”
A report commissioned in 2015 by Councilman Steve Hansen estimated that William Land Park alone would need $16.7 million to fix, renovate and update its facilities, which suffer from issues including poor paving, dated sports fields and subpar restrooms. That is $1.1 million more than the Park Operations’ entire budget for the fiscal year.
In June, the council approved spending $250,000 for an additional study on the maintenance and renovation needs of all city parks. The study is scheduled to be completed in 2016. Powell said that, based on the estimates from Hansen’s original commissioned report on William Land Park, the total amount needed in renovations citywide will easily exceed $200 million.
The aim of these reports that the City Council has requested is to look at all local parks and determine what the pressing issues are, Hansen said. The council expects to find more efficient ways of viewing Sacramento parks as a whole and allocating money to specific projects across the board, which should help avoid parochial confrontations between districts, Hansen said.
“The way we’ve been doing it is unsustainable. We’ve neglected existing parks, and even when we build new ones, we can’t maintain them,” Hansen said. “We have to figure out how to be smarter about it.”
Powell, who also heads a citizen watchdog group called Eye on Sacramento, which is frequently critical of City Hall, argues that the department could generate more funding by charging fees for groups that use local parks to host major events. By placing the proceeds in a trust account for park maintenance and renovations, parks would acquire a steady additional stream of revenue coming straight from the people who profit the most from the park venues.
“While some large nonprofits that bring in as much as $600,000 in a single event in (William Land Park) may oppose such a fee, it is the fair and equitable thing to do for the residents of Sacramento,” Powell said.
Powell also said that outsourcing maintenance work to private companies would be more economical. In 2011, the city contracted with a private company to manage three of its four golf courses. “(These) are not solutions that have been hidden. It’s the lack of a political will to do what is necessary,” Powell said.
The parks department’s Brown said the idea of an additional park fee had not been discussed. She said the department already outsources some of its services, such as pesticide applications, but is hesitant to outsource all its maintenance operations because it wants to maintain a high standard of service.
“We want communities to know their workers,” Brown said.
While the city staff report describes a threadbare maintenance operation, money for park upkeep has risen in the past few years, as the economy improved and funding from the voter-approved Measure U became available. Parks maintenance staff was cut in half between 2005 and and 2013, but has since been partially restored. According to the staff report, the number of full-time jobs in parks maintenance has grown from a low of 71 in 2013 to 104 for 2016.
At the same time, the parks department had moved on a number of long-awaited improvement projects, including a new playground, jogging trail and other amenities at McClatchy Park in the city’s Oak Park neighborhood, a project made possible by a state grant.
In June, the Sacramento City Council approved a budget that bumped up spending not only on parks but on firefighters, police officers and homeless services. City staff projects that the city will bring in enough funds to set aside a reserve through 2017-18. But when the Measure U money runs out, staff predicts, the city will face a deficit again.