By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The residents of a small neighborhood off Santa Rosa Avenue waited more than a decade to get their long-promised park. So they were overjoyed last fall when the city finally opened Harvest Park on Burt Street, complete with barbecues, two playgrounds, a dog park and picnic tables.
But less than a year later, their new park was choked with waist-high weeds. Residents were appalled to see its rapid descent into disrepair.
“This park isn’t even a year old, and it’s already the worst park in the city,” said Kris Babas, a 33-year-old utility worker who lives across the street from the park. “Everyone is just really annoyed with the city.”
But when area residents reported the weed problem to city officials, the message they received was blunt: Why don’t you clean it up yourselves?
With a budget burdened by higher fuel, insurance and pension costs, Santa Rosa is increasingly relying on volunteers to keep the city’s 66 parks tidy, a service once considered a basic government function.
The department has lost $4 million from its budget since 2008. It now employs just 12 park maintenance employees to take care of 558 acres of parks, down from more than 47 in 2008. While it has hired a private landscaping firm to mow the grass in most parks, the remaining city staff still can’t keep up.
So they concentrate on maintaining the nine high-traffic community parks, like Howarth, Finley and Southwest, and look to volunteers to help clean up litter, pull weeds and plant flowers in the smaller neighborhood parks.
Some residents resent the suggestion they should pitch in. But when Harvest Park neighbor Amber Hemmingsen saw her park overrun with weeds, she called the city to see what she and her neighbors could do.
Hemmingsen, a 27-year-old employee of the Rohnert Park utility department, spoke to the city’s park superintendent, Lisa Grant, who explained the city’s budget limitations and encouraged her to help out.
So that’s exactly what Hemmingsen did. She, along with her mother-in-law, organized a park cleanup day for the neighborhood. On Saturday, residents dug up clover burrs, ripped out foxtails and eventually wrestled control of their park back from the unwelcome weeds inhabiting it all winter and spring.
It’s easy to be upset with the city for the park’s condition, but Hemmingsen said that’s not her style. “I would just rather go with the flow and do something about it,” she said. “And when you’re done, you can look across the park and say ‘Look, we did that.’ That’s cool.”
Newer parks often are designed with less turf space to reduce water usage. Parks like Harvest, Bellevue Ranch, Airfield and Pear Blossom all fit that bill. But that leaves more open areas where weeds can easily take root, Grant said.
If the mulch or wood chips aren’t thick enough, it is easy for seeds to blow in during the winter from surrounding open space. Some weeds can produce 200,000 seeds, perpetuating the cycle, Grant said.
“They are just prolific in Sonoma County, and we just battle it,” Grant said. “Just because these newer parks use less water doesn’t mean they require less maintenance.”
She said she wasn’t responsible for park development and doesn’t know if the mulch layer put down in Harvest Park was sufficient or installed properly by the contractor. Elite Landscaping of Clovis won the contract to build the park last year, with a nearly $1 million bid. It also maintained the park through the end of the year.
But after the city took over maintenance in January, the wet weather and lack of attention to the weeds caused them to explode.
The problem isn’t limited to Harvest Park. The impact is being felt across the city.
“Things have really changed in parks the last few years,” said Connie Cloak, part of a group of neighbors that adopted Doyle Park. “The cutbacks have just been so brutal.”
Her initial goal was to keep down the foxtail seeds, which can be harmful to dogs, and to stop the city from using herbicides, also for the safety of dogs, she said.
But the city hasn’t been doing enough to keep the volunteer spirit alive in city parks, Cloak said. It’s hard to keep a sustained volunteer effort going over time. “Volunteerism is not just something that magically happens,” she said.
Cloak herself got busy with her business, and when she couldn’t stay ahead of the weeds, she hired a private landscaper to whack weeds in the park.
Assistant City Manager Jennifer Phillips agrees the city parks staff is stretched too thin. But even though she is requesting an 8 percent increase in next year’s budget, she’s not proposing to hire any new park maintenance workers.
That’s in part because the department has to spend extra money operating new facilities, like the Church of One Tree, DeTurk Round Barn and Finley Senior Wing, she said.
But some members of the City Council suggested Tuesday that the parks have been neglected long enough.
“This is a department I consider to be anorexic,” Councilwoman Julie Combs said during a budget hearing.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @citybeater.