WatchSonoma Watch

Parched parks a budget challenge for Santa Rosa



As the mercury rises, so is the heat on the Santa Rosa City Council to do something about city parks rapidly turning brown from lack of water.

The crispy condition of city parks was one of the hottest topics during the second day of the city budget hearings.

Tucker  Peterson (left) and his son, Tucker Jr.,at a very dry Bicentennial Park in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, June 19, 203. (KENT PORTER/ PD)

Tucker Peterson (left) and his son, Tucker Jr.,at a very dry Bicentennial Park in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, June 19, 203. (KENT PORTER/ PD)

Assistant City Manager Jennifer Phillips told the council that the dry fall and unseasonably hot, dry spring have left the department well over its irrigation budget for the year, forcing it to cut back watering to a bare minimum in many parks.

“The water usage is up substantially, and we’re still not even able to keep things healthy,” Phillips told the council. “We have dry fields, dry dirt, the trees are struggling, the plants are struggling and the turf. So it’s very challenging.”

The department had budgeted $620,000 for park irrigation, but by the end of May already had spent more than $800,000.

It’s the third consecutive year that parks irrigation costs have come in over budget, exceeding expectations by nearly $500,000.

In an effort to break that trend, the council is considering adding $200,000 to next year’s budget, which it is set to be finalized today.

It’s unclear, however, just how much the extra funds will help. Even spending $1.2 million on irrigation wouldn’t be enough to make the parks “green and lush and fabulous,” but it would just be enough to help the plants be “relatively healthy and not stressed,” Phillips said.

The department has had to prioritize its irrigation of city parks, opting to keep the sprinklers on for fields and facilities that are rented out, while letting neighborhood parks dry up.

“You can’t have soccer tournaments, baseball tournaments with dead lawns. Park maintenance is a critical component of facility rental,” Phillips said. “Unfortunately some of the neighborhood parks are taking the brunt of the lack of irrigation.”

Keeping sports leagues coming to the city for tournaments is a department priority because they are both a revenue generator and have a positive impact on the overall economy.

Keeping the lawn lush at the DeTurk Round Barn, for example, makes economic sense because the city is trying to do a better job of marketing that recently renovated facility out for weddings, Phillips said.

But in many other parks, the irrigation systems are turned on just once a week to keep the sprinkler heads working.

A recent a visit to Bicentennial Park on Range Avenue illustrates just how scorched neighborhood parks are getting. Grass throughout the park is brown and brittle, and the ground is so dry that deep cracks have opened up.

The turf at Juilliard Park was nearly as parched Wednesday afternoon.

“It’s just sad it’s gotten so bad,” said Tony Scapeccia, a 40-year-old flooring contractor, as he walked his bike through the park. “It’s going to be dirt soon.”

One of the reasons the irrigation budget is under pressure is because the cost of water the city purchases from the Sonoma County Water Agency has been on the rise for years. The parks department also has been paying more for city-treated wastewater used at the Finley Community Center, the fields at A Play to Play and a small park in northwest Santa Rosa. The cost of that water has been phased in the over the past four years. In 2012, the department paid $189,000 for the recycled water, and this year the figure is expected to be higher.

While the lack of irrigation is one of the most visible symptoms of the department’s budget woes, there are other unmet maintenance needs, including general maintenance, garbage cleanup and graffiti removal.

At about 83 employees, the department has 39 fewer workers than it did in 2009, Phillips said.

She proposed at some point adding six new parks workers — one maintenance worker and five lower-paid groundskeepers — as a first step toward rebuilding that part of the department. The cost for those additional workers would be $393,000, but Phillips couldn’t say where that money would come from.

That set up some jousting between Councilwoman Julie Combs, who wanted the funds added immediately, and council members with other priorities.

“I think it’s very clear that this is needed,” Combs said. “I’d like to see them funded as soon as possible in this budget.”

But Mayor Scott Bartley stressed that they didn’t have enough information about where the money would come from. “I don’t want to shoot from the hip on something this important,” he said.

Councilman Ernesto Olivares also questioned whether parks maintenance would be the best use of scarce city funds.

“I know that our parks are valuable, but I’ll tell ya, if you find another $400,000 sitting around, I have some homeless people who could use it; I have some people living in substandard homes that could use it,” Olivares said.

Combs later sought to have the $400,000 held back from a $700,000 increase proposed for the Police Department, which is in line to receive six and a half additional positions. But only she and Gary Wysocky supported that proposal, which failed 5-2.

Combs also asked why the city couldn’t use funds from Measure O, the quarter-cent public safety and gang prevention sales tax, to fund graffiti removal.

“If we do tattoo removal through Measure O, it might be reasonable to do graffiti removal also,” she said.

City Manager Kathy Millison suggested the council instead give her 60 days to figure out how to fund new staff from other revenue sources or savings elsewhere, and the majority of the council agreed.


14 Responses to “Parched parks a budget challenge for Santa Rosa”

  1. Brad Mills says:

    Let’s bring in the good folks at Daily Acts to show us some sustainable solutions that can create abundance in our public parks and open spaces. Petaluma, Windsor and Cotati have all seen the positive results of Daily Actors. Let’s bring more water-wise solutions to our city and scale it up. Let’s think sustainably and try the good old mantra of sink it, spread it and slow it! Who knows, there may be hidden abundance in our parched parks.

  2. John Comeau says:

    use of native grasses, that have adapted over millennia to the drought cycles, is far more sustainable. besides, mother nature just did a nice job of watering Sonoma county.

  3. Greg Karraker says:

    This is priceless. City parks are devolving into a resemblance of Third World Atlas Shrugged-like neglect, and on the same page, we see the Santa Rosa budget for the year has increased by 9%, and they plan to hire more people?

    What will it take for the sheep in this area to rise up and recall all these hacks?

  4. Steveguy says:

    We need to give raises to all of the administrators, with extra money for their spouse’s or partner’s car expense. They should also receive a $5,000 a month fancy motel/hotel allowance.

    Oh wait, that is what most every State and some County ‘public servants’ have. Those campaign contributions are an excuse to live high on the hog. We are the hog. Alas

    Audit the Marconi Center

    Steve Mosher

  5. Dan Drummond Sr says:

    Now my landscape, which I no longer irrigate, looks better than most neighborhood parks! Welcome to the real California, which I love.

    If you violate Nature’s laws you are your own prosecuting attorney, judge, jury, and hangman.
    ~Luther Burbank

  6. Snarky says:

    Although I agree parks should be maintained, given a choice between well watered parks and well paved roads and well repaired sidewalks…..

    I opt for the roads and sidewalk maintenance.

    As for selling government assets, start with the Sheriff’s Helicopter “Henry 1.” It doesn’t pull its own weight when you look at its million dollar a year operational costs.

  7. Big jim says:

    Letting parks die and less streetlights sends a signal to would be criminals that we don’t care about our community, which inevitably leads to higher crime rates. Diverting an inordinate share of revenue to Police, Fire and Pensions will lead to lower living conditions for us all.
    It is counter-productive!

  8. Do The Math says:

    Hate to break the news but even if all of the irrigation in Santa Rosa was done with recycled water the cost would still be about the same. The price for regular potable irrigation water (tier 1) is $5.05 while the cost for recycled (treated sewage) water (tier1) is $4.79. The cost for recycled water billed at tiers 2 & 3 is the same as potable water. That means that the maximum savings for using recycled water is a whopping .26 cents per thousand gallons.

    Link: http://ci.santa-rosa.ca.us/doclib/Documents/Rate_Sheet_Public.pdf

    I can’t fathom why anyone would want to use recycled water containing residual treatment chemicals just to save a measly .26 cents per thousand gallons. In order to use recycled water you have to get a special meter installed (with monthly cost) and use special colored pipe to run it (to identify the line as recycled non-potable water). I am sure if you were to factor in the setup costs there would likely be no savings for many years…

  9. Dave Madigan says:

    They did sell the AT&T building….at a loss!

    I believe that the Bennett Valley Golf Course is irrigated with recycled water. I seem to remember them running a pipe line out to it. Can’t the City run feeder pipes off of the main pipeline and use the recycled water elsewhere?

  10. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    Use dirty water. Or you can water it intermitantly so the grass doesn’t turn completely brown.

    Use some of that 9% surplus to water the parks and turn on the street lights.

  11. Sonoma Coma says:

    No money for street lights, but pensions are protected.

    No money for potholes, but pensions are protected.

    No money for schools, but pensions are protected.

    No money for the libraries, but pensions are protected.

    No money to water the lawns in the parks, but pension are protected….anyone see a pattern?

  12. Joe Plumber says:

    Sell the stupid AT&T building so you can water the parks. Surely some Chinese investment firm will take it.

  13. bear says:

    Some say that climate change will result in a Sonoma County where the weather resembles Central CA – SLO and Salinas.

    But can we afford to buy water for parks? This apparently would require more revenue. Surely the homeless and housing in need of rehab are higher priorities?

    If the parks turn to dirt, I’m certain our kids are tough enough to ignore it?

    Or we could impose a “watering fee” on everyone who uses parks. Like a parking meter – pay to play. Fine the offenders.

  14. Lets be Reasonable says:

    In an age where property lots are getting smaller, are parks are ever more critical. We need to preserve them, and keep them green.

    It seems to me that we should be expanding the use of recycled water to most of our parks. Currently, purple pipe is hardly used anywhere in Santa Rosa outside of A Place to Play. It is used much more extensively in Rohnert Park. We produce more than enough waste water to keep ALL of our parks green.