is Rec-Park really broke?

Pub date August 2, 2011

By David Looman

OPINION The senior staffers at the Recreation and Park Department routinely cry that the department is poor and going broke. Is it possible they are lying?

Conspicuously lacking in discussions of Rec-Park funding is any kind of hard data about how well or poorly San Francisco Rec-Park is really funded. Whether it’s the mainstream media, the alternative press, or our elected representatives on the Board of Supervisors, nobody seems to know how our park system compares with other park systems in California or the U.S.

And nobody seems to want to check up on Rec-Park’s sad-sweet story.

This lack of real information is particularly surprising, since the data is readily available. Every year, the Trust for Public Land, a well-respected, San Francisco-based park advocacy organization, conducts a meticulous and comprehensive survey of how well recreation and park systems across the country are being funded. The survey is always available on the Web, at


In the TPL’s 2000 book, Inside City Parks, by Peter Harnik, San Francisco was among the three best-funded systems, measured either per acre or per resident. In every annual survey after that, San Francisco continued to rank in the top three, until 2006. In 2006, the TPL found San Francisco to be the best-funded park system in America.

That’s right, the best-funded department in the entire U.S.!

This year’s survey, based on the 2008 figures, has changed its methodology a bit, and expenditures are no longer calculated per acre. With the new methodology, San Francisco has slipped a bit. The city is now only the fourth-best funded park system in the country for cities with populations larger than 500,000, and the sixth best for cities over 250,000.

For operating expenditures (total budget minus capital spending) San Francisco is the fourth best funded among all cities. We don’t have as many capital expenditures as, say, Seattle, whose newer park system is still growing.

The question of where that money goes is another matter. I think I can offer a few suggestions about what happens.

Problem number one is the long and glorious history of absolutely incompetent management, particularly in the last 15 years, under the administrations of mayors Willie Brown and Gavin Newsom. Second is that longstanding Rec-Park Department practice of ignoring and rejecting any public input, including factual input, from people who actually use and know the parks. This has led to a number of costly mistakes.

The department has more ethically dubious faults too—the wages spent organizing so-called “public support” for some of its unpopular projects; more wages spent having employees testify about what a great job the department is doing, etc.

The department presently is trying to privatize everything within reach. Its poor-mouth rational for doing so is false. It’s time we all faced the fact that Rec-Park isn’t giving us the whole truth.

David Looman is a longtime San Francisco political consultant and parks user.