PARKS AS A PUNCHING BAG
Data-obsessed experts at this very moment are busy preparing to drive another nail into the coffin that is the Fresno Parks Department’s reputation.
If the past is any hint, The Trust for Public Land will release this spring its latest ranking of parks systems in America’s biggest cities.
Fresno always ranks dead last. To be precise, we were tied (with Charlotte, N.C.) for dead last among 75 cities in 2015.
But for four straight years no other major U.S. city has had a sorrier commitment to green space in the eyes of the San Francisco-based organization.
My editors at The Bee loved this story. The Trust’s annual rankings were guaranteed to get prominent play, complete with photo of a beleaguered local park and its despondent nature lovers. This perfect record in a major newspaper no doubt resonates throughout The Trust’s executive offices.
Cleveland ranked No. 38 last year (tied with Colorado Springs). Do you think The Plain Dealer gives a hoot that some far away group took it upon itself to rank Cleveland’s parks system in the middle of the national pack? Do you think the folks in Cleveland’s Parks and Recreation Department saw the rankings and told themselves: “Let’s try harder – we can be No. 37”?
For the sake of The Trust’s national brand and media profile, Fresno almost certainly will be ranked last when ParkScore 2016 is unveiled in four months. The story line is too good to stop now.
ParkScore’s value for Fresno politics is perpetuating a sense of crisis. We don’t have enough parks. They’re not big enough. They aren’t equally dispersed throughout the city. They’re too close to freeways, or major streets, or industrial parks. They don’t offer enough programming. They’re not well maintained. They’re not safe.
Of course, green space is wonderful, especially when it’s found in an ordered society. The challenge is paying for all that green space and ensuring all that order.
Fresno City Hall knew all this long before ParkScore mania came to town.
Three points of context are worth making.
First, City Hall at the end (2007-08) of Mayor Alan Autry’s second term tried to perfect the parks system with debt. More than $30 million was borrowed to build lots of parks in a hurry.
The Great Recession hit soon after Autry left the building. Some proposed parks got built; others didn’t. We’re still paying on those bonds. Scratch long-term borrowing as a green space elixir.
Second, Mayor Swearengin walked into her new office in 2009 only to be handed a general fund disaster. This money, spent at the discretion of elected officials (their favorite kind), was drying up as the U.S. housing market imploded.
General fund money pretty much goes to just six places: Police, fire, debt service, infrastructure repairs, City Council-Mayor’s Office-City Manager’s Office, parks.
Needless to say, the first five are deemed virtually untouchable by powerful forces. Parks in recent years took the budgetary beating while the Mayor kept Fresno out of bankruptcy court.
It wasn’t 100% mayhem. New parks were built – Inspiration Park and Martin Ray Reilly Park, for example. And the city last month agreed to spend $1.2 million to help Fresno Unified School District open up school playgrounds to the public during non-school hours.
But to backfill as much as possible during the economic downturn, Mayor Swearengin sought help from the public.
She asked groups to voluntarily help maintain selected green space – her Adopt a Park program. Take over a park or neighborhood center, she offered, and we’ll give you priority status on the use of its public assets (ball fields, for example).
Some groups responded. For example, Cary Little League and the city signed a contract in 2011 that gave the league priority use of the Cary Park ball fields (south of Fashion Fair shopping center) for five months in exchange for a modest annual fee and maintenance duties.
Some of these deals were successful and continue to this day. Others hit the rocks, the nonprofits’ idealism exceeding their abilities. The Parks Department in those cases stepped in.
Then city finances some 18 months ago began to brighten. The general fund this year will top $300 million, a first in Fresno history. Would the Swearengin Administration say goodbye to the nonprofit partnerships and return all parks services to parks employees?
The Jan. 7 deal with Frazier answered that question.
Third, high-profile surveys of municipal green space, Fresno’s routinely poor showing in these surveys, and intense public debate over the state of our parks combine to give immense political power to statistical comparisons.
This was highlighted during last June’s budget hearings. Some community groups said the facts are plain – North Fresno has a lot more green space than South Fresno.
City officials went red in the face. They said the other side bent the numbers into unrecognizable shape. They said the other side made up numbers.
None of the officials’ bluster mattered. Parks equality based on statistics, geography and group identity was here to stay. This formula had also been democratized. Fresno’s social justice warriors weren’t going to depend on some outside do-gooder group to come up with argument-winning comparisons. They realized they could do the number-crunching and rabble-rousing themselves.
Mayor Swearengin is a smart politician. She adjusted to this new reality.