Santa Rosa parks officials are exploring whether a combination of new taxes, partnerships with volunteer groups and the creation of a nonprofit foundation might help solve the sad state of the city’s 65 parks after years of budget cuts.
An additional $2.5 million to $3 million a year is needed to address vandalism, deferred maintenance and safety issues in city parks, said Marc Richardson, head of recreation, parks and community services.
“We just can’t keep up with the level of effort that’s required to maintain our parks in a condition that enables us to be proud of them,” Richardson told a joint meeting Tuesday of the City Council and Board of Community Service.
Now that several years of budgetary “freefall” have been abated, the time has come to find a long-term way to fund the city’s parks, Richardson said.
“It’s time to start talking about how to go back and fix this,” he said.
The Parks and Recreation Department has taken a $4 million budget hit since 2007, leaving just 12 maintenance workers for 65 parks covering more than 1,200 acres.
Richardson outlined a three-pronged approach.
The first involves gauging the public’s appetite for various funding options, such as a sales tax or parcel tax dedicated to increasing park funding. He asked the council to consider hiring a consultant during the budget year beginning in July to do public education and polling.
The second involves partnering with more volunteer organizations willing to take responsibility for park upkeep. That already is happening on city soccer fields and some neighborhood parks, Richardson said.
The third – and the one that generated the most skepticism on the council – was the creation of a nonprofit foundation to encourage private donations, similar to Seniors Inc., the private group that helped raise millions for the city’s new senior center.
Councilman John Sawyer said he was skeptical of the approach, citing his experience with Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, whose operations were taken over by the nonprofit Friends of Luther Burbank.
“I am reticent to consider it as the silver bullet because it doesn’t appear to be working across the street,” Sawyer said of the national landmark across Sonoma Avenue from City Hall. “I’ve never seen it in worse condition.”
But members of the Board of Community Services were unanimous in their support for establishing such a foundation, arguing it would create a vehicle for private individuals who want to support city parks but wouldn’t donate to the government.
“It’s unlikely that people are going to want to make contributions to a government entity. Everybody hates paying taxes in the first place,” said board member Rick Surlow.
Board member Barbara Ramsey said she was “very passionate” about the concept of a foundation because she knows donors need to retain control over how their gifts are spent.
She said citizens don’t have “that trust, the feeling that if they put their revenue in any one thing it cannot be taken away.”
One major funding shortfall is the loss of park development fees, which the department has for years been using to maintain and upgrade existing parks, said Craig Lawson, chair of the Board of Community Services.
With new home construction at historic lows, that revenue has slowed to a trickle.
Given this decline, Sawyer said he is concerned the city continues to move forward with plans for new parks even as it is challenged to maintain its existing facilities.
“I’m really concerned about the concept in this time of austerity of expanding our obligations,” Sawyer said.
Richardson said the city’s General Plan requires it to move forward with building parks. The notion of freezing those efforts has been met with “consternation” by residents in neighborhoods where parks were promised, he said.
“It presents some equity issues,” Richardson said.
Councilwoman Susan Gorin noted the housing downtown has given the city some “phenomenal opportunities” to buy park land on the cheap, and she wanted to see that continue.
“We shouldn’t shirk from that simply because we don’t have the money for development and maintenance now,” she said.
Lawson said he understands some of the hesitation expressed by the council, including concerns about spending money on consultants. But he noted the consultant they have in mind, Barry Weiss, has helped a number of other communities set up nonprofit foundations, including in Windsor.
Mayor Ernesto Olivares said he shared Sawyer’s concerns and will be “very cautious” about supporting a parks foundation but encouraged ideas to keep flowing.
“It sounds like there is an interest in exploring some of these options a little bit further,” Olivares said.