Monday, June 29, 2009

City of Atlanta Parks and examining the role of Conservancies and City Responsbilities

Piedmont Park conservancy group pays off

While well-written and informative from a historical perspective, this article barely hints at the challenges that smaller conservancy and sports organizations face when dealing with the city itself; scratching the surface on the implications of universal use of the Conservancy model in a given municipal environment.

The model of a non-profit conservancy is ubiquitous. Thereby the model holds a large degree of credibility. Simply because a given model is prevalent, does not necessarily imply that it is without serious drawbacks.

City parks are an amenity to any city. The original management model of public parks was that city tax dollars and staffing support the maintenance, improvement, and operation of the parks within the municipality's domain. However, when budget cut backs are needed, the funding of the parks is usually the first in line to have their budget reduced. Over time, cutbacks degrade parks, thus creating an environment suitable for the creation of Conservancies by grassroots organizing citizens form together to raise funds to repair otherwise untended and deteriorating parks.

The Conservancy model has gained widespread popularity, with even small neighborhood parks taking over the city's management responsibilities. The benefits of the conservancy model are fairly obvious. The leading benefit is that an organization dedicated to the mission of a given park's restoration, expansion, and operation can better pursue execute it's projects since they will have the latitude and focus to direct their budgets with a large degree of autonomy, once a master plan is established.

Within the Conservancy model, there is a spectrum of specificity of the model's application. You have sports teams appropriating fields from a park such as Frankie Allan's baseball (BYO) facility on Pharr Road, improving the fields, and leaving the remainder of the park literally to rack and ruin. You have well run groups, such as Grant Park, that have generated enormous visible improvements to a park, with very little actual money raised to accomplish the goal. You have other groups that leverage revenue generating facilities within a park charging park users for various access and park activities, such as Piedmont Park. What is consistently true among these applications is that Conservancy activities relieve the City of cost and responsibility. The ongoing existential problem is that the City, as the erstwhile trustee of these public assets, generally does a poor job of interacting with 3rd parties who have been delegated the City's own responsibilities.

The parks administration regularly displays sudden changes of mood and attitude when interpreting MOU's with Conservancy's. I have personally witnessed the City's capricious disregard for fairness time and again. There are several examples. Grant Park must rent it's own Pavilions from the City, though they use these properties for a park raise funding event. Bitsy Grant must rent it's own bathrooms for the gala fundraiser, as well as pay the city staff, instead of allowing volunteer docents to staff the event. Bitsy Grant, after investing $2m for new courts which more than exceed the water usage regulation codes, could not use water on the brand new clay courts since they are lumped in with all the other courts that have not been improved. To prevent the $2m investment from literally drying up and blowing away in a dust cloud, Friends of Bitsy had to raise another $25,000 to install well equipment to water the courts, never mind what impacts widespread use of wells in an urban environment may have on ground water. This past January, rugby teams were kicked off fields en masse, while paying tens of thousands of dollars per year in field rentals, being labeled as field destroyers, when unscheduled field users actually destroyed the fields, leaving them as the only ones to be reached when blame must be assigned, since they were the only ones paying rent on the fields. The Parks Department was given ongoing photographic documentation of the usage by the rugby teams, but this information was not taken into account when the four teams were expelled.

Suffice it to say, unless you are the 800lb gorilla, your organization will face inconsistency and adversity in your interactions with the City. I can only conclude that until an organization achieves a financial stature that elicits respectful and consistent treatment, they will continue to have to struggle to assert the tenets of an MOU with the City.

Another important shortcoming implied by the Conservancy model is that the proliferation of the model has produced a negative pressure on the competing conservancies ability to raise funds to the particular detriment of non-tax funded charities.

- The first movers have enjoyed a majority of the capital donations and attract/retain the more qualified staff. For example, Piedmont Park is a first mover. Being well situated and visible to nearby corporate funding sources, they have generated a long standing relationship of trust. This creates a very difficult climate for other conservancy's in which to compete, since the donors are already committed to one park versus another. In the City managed model, all the revenue generated by the park would have benefited other parks within the Parks Dept. Now, this is funnelled only to the park generating the income. Whether this is appropriate or not is a subject to lengthy debate. The essence is that the other parks without similar revenue generating properties, will inevitably be at a disadvantage.

- Once the management and funding of a given park has been delegated to a conservancy, the City can then depend upon the efforts of the Conservancy's for finances instead of lobbying for adequate internal funding from the City's annual budget to perform the activities their department is otherwise charged with. The public, in effect, does not get what it is paying for, and now is called upon to donate even more funds to a Conservancy to enjoy services that should have otherwise been made available by virtue of taxpayer contributions.

- To subsidize parks with charitable funds when tax payers are otherwise supposed to provide those funds negatively impacts other charitable organizations that are not deemed "city services". Parks are "city services" and therefore entitle to share in the proceeds of tax revenue collections.

Therefore, the overall effect is that several conservancy's compete for limited resources, also pulling funding resources from other charitable organizations that may have no means to make claims upon municipal budget resources.

One solution requires reformatting how City Hall and it's Parks Dept serve the public properties for which they entrusted. Any Conservancy's political strategy should call for active lobbying for the prioritization of tax funding for parks. However, the funding will support an Parks organization that has very many operational shortcomings and only have marginal, durable impact. The city itself, as we well know, has very many operational shortcomings. In order for the parks to be effectively managed by the city, it implies that literally all the other broken facets of city operations also need to be repaired.

Therefore, the way forward is to maintain the Conservancy mission as status quo, all the while to present a unified front requiring the reform of city operations, hiring & contracting practices, the balance of power between the mayor and city council, and implementation of formal accounting controls in conjunction with ongoing 3rd party audits for oversight.

The focal point of this political front would logically be Park Pride, since they span the ecosystem of Conservancy's in our region and espouse missions statements in alignment with the conservancies they service.

If we can organize this message to the City under Parkpride's banner, voicing the need for reform of city financial controls, hiring practices, and balancing of power, then one day we may just be able to hand much of this responsibility back to the where it should have been maintained all along. Then, a Conservancy could provide active oversight and input into the future care of a given park, but utilize tax payer funds that have already been raised to achieve the goal, rather than absorbing charitable donations from missions that do not qualify for tax payer funding as a component of a qualified City service.

If these efforts do succeed, the reality is that Conservancy organizations will not likely abdicate their authority to the City, even if it would be more effective for the overarching park conservation mission.

As a rule of thumb, any organization will entrench itself, even to the peril of the mission, since this is the natural response and function of the organizational collective's ego; the identity of the organization will want to survive, no matter the cost.

When the citizens and groups such as conservancies do succeed in reforming City of Atlanta, we will have an interesting, perhaps painful, challenge to reorganize our organizations to ensure the most effective strategy in the new environment.

Therefore, Conservancies are here to stay! ;-)

No comments:

Post a Comment

The moderator will review and approve your message soon. Thank you for your comment.