Wrecked park department

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On Feb. 13, in a fourth floor hearing room in City Hall, large crowds of San Francisco Recreation and Park Department workers and supporters showed up on short notice to hear how the department was going to be gutted by deep budget cuts.

Overflow crowds of spilled into adjacent rooms to hear interim department director Jared Blumenfeld announce impending cuts to staff and hours. Although the department’s Web site stresses that "all parks, playgrounds, recreation centers, pools, golf courses, gyms, art centers, senior centers, and clubhouses will remain open," the cuts are so deep that all involved knew that the services and facilities will be shadows of their former selves.

Many people told the Guardian that they are also concerned that the process is intended to facilitate privatization of many Rec and Park functions, giving city jobs to contract workers who will not be able to duplicate the experience or connection to communities of the city workers they replace.

The Rec-Park Commission will have another hearing on the cuts at 2 p.m. Feb 19 in City Hall, Room 416, with more time for public comment. Activists working for more equitable cuts will stage a protest rally beforehand across from City Hall at 1 p.m.

At the meeting, numerous youngsters and their parents spoke of recreation directors mentoring kids who have few other positive influences in their lives. Many of these Rec and Park workers will be on the receiving end of pink slips at the end of the month. Blumenfeld announced that 51 full-time equivalent recreation director positions would be cut (the actual number of layoffs will be even higher given than many of the workers are part time).

Blumenfeld explained that $11.4 million needs to be cut from Rec and Park’s budget of the total budget about $140 million. He described some new ways to raise revenue, including charging entrance fees for the Botanical Garden, increasing pool fees, and charging the SF Public Library rent for the 32,000 square feet where local branches operate on public park land.

But even critics of the department say Blumenfeld is more accessible than his predecessor, Yomi Agunbiade, who was forced out last year after he came under fire for some of his privatization schemes and personnel issues. But raiding library funding, which is protected by voter-approved budget set-asides, is likely to create a backlash from the public.

Blumenfeld said he regretted tapping library funds, but said the move is being forced by budgetary realities. "Ultimately, this is a Lord of the Flies situation," he said.

Leah Grant of the group Friends of Potrero Hill told the Guardian at the hearing that the playground near where she lives was recently chained shut, leaving at-risk kids locked out. In an e-mail after the meeting, she wrote that it is "very, very difficult to accept that the programs for the disabled and at-risk children are going to be thrown under the bus while the privatization continues to the advantage of the wealthy and the taxpayers of San Francisco are literally being robbed of our public parks."

Grant also expressed concern that the City Fields Foundation, backed by Gap, Inc. founder Donald Fisher, a controversial funder of conservative causes in San Francisco, has essentially been taking over parks across the city and would further benefit from this year’s restructuring by filling the void with privatized services.

Blumenfeld insisted that "rumors" of privatization were unfounded, but admitted that Mayor Gavin Newsom’s nonprofit public-private partnership Rec Connect model is a key part of the mix in the new budget arrangements. As the Guardian reported ("Connect the connects," Oct. 17, 2007), the Rec Connect model is "private, funded by undisclosed corporate donations, staffed by volunteers who are often city employees or [Newsom’s] campaign donors, and unaccountable to any internal controls or outside scrutiny."

One department employee, who spoke off the record due to concerns about job security, told the Guardian that "there is not the same level of accountability for those in the Rec Connect program. If they leave the building where they are working, there is not necessarily anyone who is watching them."

Sources within the department say there will be 10 new Rec Connect sites opened to offset the budget cuts, a move that comes at a time when Newsom is trying to raise significant money for his nascent gubernatorial campaign.

"I feel like they’re using the financial crisis to push something they’ve been trying to accomplish for a long time," the source said. "And with this model, there are three to four layers of paid bureaucracy before these monies get to the kids. What they aren’t telling the public is that it is actually cheaper to allow Rec and Park workers to do our job than to pay the nonprofits, even though the workers the nonprofits contract out are making a lower hourly wage."

Lorraine Hanks, a recreation director who has worked with Rec and Park for 16 years, shared similar dissatisfaction with the Rec Connect program. In a phone interview, Hanks told us that "Rec Connect was supposed to come in and create innovative programs. They didn’t do that. They wound up doing the same things we were already doing."

Rec Connect spokesperson Jo Mestelle didn’t return Guardian calls for comment by press time.

Hanks also noted that "under Proposition J, 50 percent of funding was supposed to go to Rec and Park, and 50 percent was supposed to go to DCYF [Department of Children, Youth and their Families]. If we had that original 50 percent, we wouldn’t have to lay anyone off."

On the way out of Friday’s meeting, Betty Traynor of Friends of Boeddeker Park told us that many seniors and youngsters in the Tenderloin will have no park or safe public space to go to if the proposed cuts to hours go through, and that important programs for kids and seniors will be eliminated. Traynor added that the cuts "will also reduce hours for adult users of the park who have no other open green space in the Tenderloin."

Rec and Park employee Brando Rogers said the cuts would hurt youth who have developed relationships with employees and value these after school programs. "These are long-term relationships," she told us. "They can’t be replaced by seasonal contract workers. I’m worried that if these precious mentors have their jobs eliminated, the neighborhoods will just be decimated."