City Council, mayor spar over PPA ticket surcharge to fund parks system

Members of City Council joined the Philadelphia Parks Alliance today to call on Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration to restore $8 million to the Department of Parks and Recreation, which would bring the operating budget to the $56 million approved by Nutter and City Council for fiscal year 2009.

That year, parks advocates fought to pass Nutter’s proposed Parking Tax, which was to serve as a dedicated revenue stream for the “chronically underfunded” department. But, though the tax was approved, the money went to other places when the economy took a turn for the worse.

“We’re looking at how do we begin to rededicate that stream of revenue,” Councilman Kenyatta Johnson said. He, along with Council members Cindy
Bass – Chair of the Committee on Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs –
Mark Squilla and Jim Kenney all spoke today the importance of the city parks system. “For me, at a minimum – a minimum – a promise was made and if a promise was made, we need to revisit that promise and start funding these parks,” Johnson said.

Despite inflation and increased maintenance costs, the Department of Parks and Recreation’s budget has flatlined over the past 30 years, remaining virtually
unchanged since 1970. Comparable cities like
Cincinnati, Chicago and New York spend over twice as much per resident
on parks and recreation as Philadelphia.

As the meeting at City Hall commenced, an example of the Department’s vitality was taking place just across the street in the form of a lunchtime dance workout at Love Park, part of the roster of events celebrating Love Your Park Week.

As far as concrete suggestions to increase money allocated to the parks, Squilla said he recently submitted a proposal to the Nutter administration that would add a $2 surcharge to parking tickets, with the extra revenue going straight to the Department of Parks and Recreation. He estimates it would raise an extra $2 million per year.

But legal squabbles have stalled the legislation for the time being. According to Squilla, lawyers with the Nutter administration found Monday that a state ordinance prohibits Parking Authority revenue from bypassing the city’s general fund and the state-overseen School District, the two areas that currently divvy up PPA profits.

In contrast, Squilla said a legal opinion released by the Parking Authority last week found his suggestion to be viable due to a precedent set earlier this month when the PPA approved a $1.25 fuel surcharge for taxi riders that goes directly back to the drivers.

“My position is, don’t tell me we can’t do it,” Squilla said. “Find a way we can do it. … It’s submitted, it’s about whether we introduce it, whether we need to tweak something or if we can find some middle ground.”

Kenney said that money raised by activities hosted in city parks need to go directly back to the parks, not into the city’s general fund. “This just goes to show that no good deed goes unpunished,” he said to the packed room. “Because all the time and effort you put in voluntarily becomes taken for granted. You shouldn’t be taken for granted and we need to have the funds to maintain your efforts.”

Volunteers at Philadelphia parks worked a total of 220,000 hours in 2011, amounting to an estimated $4.8 million in what the Parks Alliance calls “sweat equity.” That’s not even counting volunteers at city recreation centers. There are 30 percent fewer recreation center
staffers today than in 2000 – 75 of the city’s 130 rec centers don’t
even have a custodian – and Fairmount Park Rangers have dropped from 525
Guard Police in 1971 to only 18 rangers in 2009.

“Parks are not optional. Parks are not something we can say, ‘Maybe we
can have, maybe not. Maybe they’re good for neighborhoods, maybe they’re
not.'” Bass said. “That’s not the way a world-class city like Philadelphia treats
its parks and recreation.”

Though the parks were slated to receive $59.6 million by 2013 per
Nutter’s 2009 Five-Year Plan, the administration this year proposed a
$47.8 million Parks and Recreation budget, $2.1 million of which simply represents a funding shift and is not new money. If approved, it will be one of the lowest budgets for
the department in the last 10 years.

“We need to recognize that parks have an economic impact – they bring people in and grow our city,” Bass said. “People who move in pay business taxes and city wage taxes. … Parks and Recreation are a no-brainier. They bring people in.”

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