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Editorial: Sacramento parks expansion plan finally gets a boost

The sacrifice that Sacramento voters took on by approving higher sales taxes is starting to pay off not only in more cops and firefighters on the job. The $27million annual windfall also is enabling the city to rehire parks maintenance staff and finally launch an ambitious expansion and renovation effort.

The new parks and fix-ups over the next two years will help correct an imbalance of parkland across the city. In some neighborhoods, the city isn’t coming close to its stated goals of providing a park within a half-mile radius of every resident, as well as a minimum number of acres of different kinds of parks. The projects on the way include a long-sought park in Fruitridge Manor in south Sacramento, improvements to McClatchy Park in Oak Park and three new parks in North Natomas, The Bee’s Ryan Lillis reported Sunday.

Much of the $21million pouring into Sacramento’s park system from state grants, developer fees and other sources has been available for years, but city officials delayed the projects until money was available to maintain parks. During six years of budget cuts, parks maintenance staffing was slashed by half, resulting in less frequent mowing and trash pickup. The MeasureU sales tax money is helping restore about 25percent of those staffing cuts.

But as its finances improve, the city can’t just return to business as usual. It must take advantage of innovations and learn lessons forced by hard times.

On one front, there’s reason for optimism. During the recession, neighborhood groups and other community volunteers stepped forward to help keep parks clean. The city is trying to build on those successes.

City Parks Director Jim Combs told The Bee’s editorial board on Monday that the volunteer program “is continuing full speed ahead” with two full-time coordinators. The department employs about 140 youths to help maintain parks, he says. The city is also working with the YMCA to run public pools and with nonprofits to open community centers. Besides stretching tax dollars, these partnerships strengthen civic involvement. The city should do all it can to encourage them.

On another front, however, City Hall is still being too timid. While studies over the years have suggested looking at using private contractors for some parks work, there’s no real movement. Combs says the city continues to explore the possibility of private crews, but “we are not ready to go down that path at this time.” What would be the harm in a test at a park or two to see if a private firm can do the same work for less money?

Unless approved again by city voters, the half-cent sales tax hike will expire after six years. To be convinced that it’s still worth it, voters will want to see tangible results, but will also want to know that the money was spent in the smartest way possible.