By Hannah E. Jones
Last week, District 9 Councilmember Dustin Hillis introduced legislation that would double the money dedicated to local parks, recreation centers and trails through the City of Atlanta’s Parks Improvement Fund.
Under this legislation, the annual fund would go from $16 million to about $32 million.
The fund was established in the 1970s, allocating 90 percent of funds to capital improvements and 10 percent to maintenance and other costs. In addition to doubling the funding for parks, the new model will allot 50 percent of the money to capital improvements, 40 percent to maintenance, 5 percent to security and safety, and 5 percent to other expenses.
With 11 co-sponsors, Hillis is confident the parks legislation will pass. This will be a City Charter amendment and a Fiscal Year 2024 budget item, meaning it could be adopted with the rest of the budget on June 20.
The new parameters were crafted to address the “lopsided allocations,” as Hillis described them. The legislation puts a stronger emphasis on maintenance — a major topic of discussion lately among local park experts. A 2021 Activate ATL survey found that while 84 percent of respondents had used a park in the past year, 24 percent were discouraged from using the amenities because they weren’t well maintained.
“[The legislation] will bring over $11 million more dollars to maintenance cost, which is direly needed given the condition of our current parks, coupled with the many hundreds of acres of new parks and many miles of new trails added just within the past few years,” Hillis wrote in an email to SaportaReport. “While we of course want to continue adding more parks, as we work toward the national standard of having all residents within a 10-minute walk of a park, the City must show its commitment to residents and our philanthropic partners that we are fully committed to addressing the longstanding lack of maintenance issue.”
Park Pride Executive Director Michael Halicki has been a staunch advocate for prioritizing maintenance in our parks system. He describes it as the “Achilles’ heel.” To Halicki, greenspaces must be well-maintained to function as welcoming, activated outdoor areas. But because the topic is less flashy and sometimes considered nonessential, maintenance is often on the chopping block when the budget is low.
“We’ve seen that there are dollars that will follow visionary projects in a way that dollars don’t follow maintenance,” Halicki said.
He added: “We’re in a place right now where our parks department has stretched their pennies and dimes as far as they possibly can, and there is a mentality of triage of, ‘What’s the most dire thing that needs to be fixed right now?’ This [legislation] gives us the capacity to be more centered in the work that we’re doing to provide a certain standard of care that I think will be immediately noticeable to people. This new level of funding comes with a new expectation of what maintenance should look like in City of Atlanta parks.
Additionally, Hillis and Halicki noted that this investment signals to philanthropic partners that the city can take care of the projects that they invest in.
“It’s my hope that this investment in parks maintenance (the largest in half a century) shows our philanthropic partners that, yes, if you invest in Atlanta by spending millions of dollars to help us acquire land to build new parks or expand our multiuse trail system, the city will most certainly be able to maintain it for years to come,” Hillis said.
If the legislation passes, local leaders are confident that Atlantans will see an improved version of our parks system.
“I feel like we’re making some key movements right now to create the park system that we want for our city,” Halicki said. “The maintenance piece is, in some ways, the hardest to do and yet the most foundational of them all. If we can’t fix the maintenance issue, philanthropy will sit on the sidelines and not step forward. This is a way of getting our house in order and preparing for world-class.”
Residents wanting to give their input can click here to find their district’s council member and contact information.
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