$195 Million Parks Bond Goes to November 2012 Ballot

July 26, 2012

Following extensive community outreach and planning — and months of negotiations over specific projects — the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has placed the $195 million 2012 Neighborhood Parks Bond on the November ballot. That's nearly $200 million that will help repair and upgrade facilities throughout San Francisco. The bond follows others in 2000 and 2008 to maintain and rebuild a parks system that makes up 12 percent of land in the city.

So what do we get for $195 million? Quite a bit:
·     $99 million for neighborhood park improvements;
·     $34.5 million for waterfront open spaces;
·     $21 million for regional parks;
·     $15.5 million to repair failing playgrounds across the city; and
·     $12 million for a Community Opportunity Fund that leverages private funds for community-based park projects.

You can learn more about the details of the proposed bond on the Recreation and Parks Department’s website.

Following our 2011 Seeking Green report on new revenues for the Recreation and Parks Department (RPD), SPUR has been actively engaged in the bond planning process. This means more than picking which pools to repair and which wind-worn ballfields should get new sprinklers. We also learned a lot about how the department is working to improve project delivery. That can mean anything from how long it takes to design a project to how long it takes to conduct community outreach to how the city solicits bids for specific projects. Most importantly, perhaps, is how all of these pieces fit together to determine what these projects will ultimately cost San Francisco taxpayers.

It’s obvious to many that our parks need regular maintenance and funding to keep them clean and accessible. What might not be as obvious is just how much money — and how many people — it actually takes to keep up our parks. This is why we undertook the Seeking Green report to examine the needs of RPD. What we found is that RPD faces similar challenges to Muni: There is a pronounced difference between funding capital improvements and funding ongoing operations. Operations have simply not been a funding priority of our elected officials, and as a result RPD has been driven to pursue additional funding in the form of concessions and services.

There have been many questions — both in public discussions and in our own parks revenue task force — about the ongoing operating challenges facing the department and the city. It does not makes sense to spend money improving buildings or restoring parks if we can’t afford to open those buildings or operate those parks. There needs to be a sustained commitment to operations to support any capital program.

The challenge is a common one: voter-approved bond programs can only address capital needs; it is the mayor and Board of Supervisors who allocate annual operating funds. And while the two types of funding would be best considered together — for example, improving the efficiency of sprinkler systems can improve water efficiency and lower operating costs — that is unfortunately not how it works. The same is true for Muni: There are different pots of money available for building train tracks versus operating those trains on a daily basis.

The bottom line is that this parks bond must be considered as only one component of a very complex funding equation. As we recommended in Seeking Green, it is imperative that the department seek dedicated funding for operations to maintain the improvements completed through this bond program. In fact, our hope has been that the operating deficit would be addressed first. The city’s first biannual budget, signed by the mayor this week, inches this conversation forward with additional funding to meet RPD operating needs. But we hope the real conversation — a sustained commitment of the city’s general fund — will follow soon.