By Maria Saporta
It’s the same old story.
When government budgets get tighter, one of the first items to get cut is in the parks and recreation department. While parks and recreation centers are vitally important to a city’s quality of life, when it comes to choosing between police officers and park maintenance, public safety usually wins out.
Two metro Atlanta governments provide alternatives that show different approaches on how to fund park acquisition and maintenance — the City of Atlanta and Gwinnett County.
Margaret Connelly, executive director of the advocacy organization Park Pride, sent out an “Alert” on May 10 saying that the proposed City of Atlanta budget by Mayor Kasim Reed would shift about $3 million from trust funds to help cover an operating budget gap for fiscal year 2014.
“I just think it’s unfortunate that the City’s General Fund can’t cover the budget for parks and recreation to maintain current levels of service,” Connelly wrote in an email.
Park Pride is urging supporters to wear green shirts and attend a City Council public hearing on Thursday, May 16 at 6 p.m. at Atlanta City Council Chambers. The effort is being branded as: “Act to Save Atlanta’s Parks (ASAP).”
“This is not sustainable,” according to Park Pride’s alert. “Those trust funds will not be available over the long haul, and they should not be necessary to support the City’s requirement to provide basic park operations and maintenance.”
Atlanta has been hoping to bolster its parks profile for years. Centennial Olympic Park, Historic Fourth Ward Park and the Atlanta BeltLine are just a few recent examples of new investments in parks within the city.
But, when compared to 40 of the other major cities around the country, Atlanta remains in the bottom half.
According to the Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore list, Atlanta’s rank is at No. 26.
It has been a priority of Park Pride to improve Atlanta’s overall ranking and make parks more accessible to city residents.
Trust for Public Land also publishes a “City Park Facts” report that shows what percentage of city residents live within a half mile of a park. On that list, the top cities are San Francisco (98 percent), Boston (97 percent), New York (96 percent) and Washington, D.C. (96 percent).
On that list, Atlanta’s rank is No. 19 with 63 percent of the city’s population within a half mile of a park — considered to be a 10 minute walk or within easy walking distance. Interestingly enough, Charlotte, N.C. ranks at the bottom of that list with only 26 percent of its population living within a half mile of a park.
Park Pride, founded in 1989, has been working with several city administrations to improve Atlanta’s national standing when it comes to green space and parks.
Connelly has decided to leave the organization at the end of June after two years with the organization so she can spend more time with her two children.
Park Pride currently is now looking for a new executive director who will work for more and better parks in the City of Atlanta and DeKalb County by partnering with other organizations and through fundraising and advocacy.
One key goal of Park Pride has been to develop a dedicated funding source for green space acquisition and park operations and maintenance. If the City of Atlanta had a dedicated source for parks, then it not be as vulnerable to the ups and downs of the annual budget when it come to covering its annual operating expenses.
Gwinnett County has found another solution. In the mid-1990s, Gwinnett voters have passed a one-cent sales tax of which up to 40 percent of those revenues have gone to buying green space and to improving its parks, including investing its recreation facilities.
Since 1997, Gwinnett’s Special Local Option Sales Tax has contributed millions of dollars for parks and green space projects in Gwinnett — transforming the county from having one of the weaker programs in the region to one of the best in the country.
The portion of sales tax has paid for the development of new parks, the renovation of existing parks and investment in several amenities, such as picnic areas, pavilions, multi-purpose trails, mountain biking and equestrian trails, multi-purpose courts, fishing lakes, playgrounds, sports fields, gymnasiums, tennis courts, aquatic facilities, a disc golf course, sake complexes, dog parks, horseshoes, shuffleboard and bocce ball.
It now has more than 9,000 acres among its 46 parks. In 2010, the Georgia Recreation and Park Association recognized Gwinnett County’s Park system as No. 1 in the state. And the National Recreation and Park Association also has recognized Gwinnett County for its park system.
But that’s not all. Gwinnett County Commission Chair Charlotte Nash sent me an email saying that a special tax district for parks and recreation was approved by countywide referendum in the mid-1980s.
“A mill of property tax is dedicated to this tax district and used to cover the operating costs for Gwinnett’s parks and recreation operation,” Nash wrote. “The combination of a dedicated revenue source for operating and the availability of SPLOST for capital costs has contributed to the sustainable success of Gwinnett’s parks and recreation system.”
The lesson for the Atlanta region is relatively simple. If we want to make significant improvements with our parks and green space, we need a dedicated funding source that can provide consistent and substantial investments in our parks.
The popularity of multi-purpose trails and greenways — such as the Eastside Trail of the Atlanta BeltLine — also show the merit for both public and private investment in such facilities. Some communities are combining greenways and green space with “blue ways” — restored streams, creeks and rivers in cities — or by “day-lighting” waterways that have been buried in tunnels.
And Historic Fourth Ward Park shows how a city can help address its storm-water runoff issues and develop new parks at the same time — often more cheaply than trying to build bigger underground tunnels in our cities.
The bottom line is that if we want to improve Atlanta’s quality of life, we need to find new ways to invest in parks and green space — both by buying new land and maintaining what we already have.