Tuesday, August 22, 2006

"Council to hold hearings on Parks Dept. oversight" MetroNY 08/22/06

"Using public parks for private profit"...Hummm, doesn't that sound like the Yankees stealing our 22-acres of city parkland for their taxpayer-subsidized new stadium?

Council to hold hearings on Parks Dept. oversight

by patrick arden / metro new york

AUG 22, 2006

MANHATTAN — Plans for a water park on Randall’s Island and restaurants in Union and Stuyvesant squares are among the most recent controversies raising concerns about the use of public parks for private profit.

A series of City Council hearings will pick up the hot topic of park concessions this fall, said parks committee chair Helen Diane Foster, D-Bronx, yesterday.

“There are a number of issues with concessions that we’re going to look into,” Foster said. “There have been issues with how the contracts are granted and whether the discretion lies solely with the Parks Dept. There have been concerns about how much money a concessionaire is allowed to keep, and there are also concerns about the potential for the privatization of the parks.”

Foster said these hearings have been advocated by fellow Council members Alan Gerson and Dan Garodnick. Gerson is drafting legislation to give the City Council oversight into the Park Dept.’s awarding of concessions and its administration of the public-private partnerships known as conservancies.

Petition drive

Gerson was one of the 102 signers of a petition this month that called for public hearings and legislative oversight to address what it termed the Parks Dept.’s “increasing difficulty in reaching agreement” with communities. The petitioners asked for greater “transparency” in the awarding of concessions and the alienation of parkland.

The legislation is meant to be “helpful to the institution,” Gerson said. “There are a lot of financial pressures on the department to reach out to other sources for funding. That can be a good thing, as long as it’s done in such a way to maintain the open, public character of our parks.”

The petitioners also called for the Council to commit “monies collected from activities in the parks to the maintenance and operations of city parks.” Currently most proceeds from park concessions go into the city’s general fund.

A bill last year would have sent these funds directly to Parks Dept. coffers. “While there were many members who signed on, it didn’t go anywhere,” Foster said. “[The bill] hasn’t been reintroduced because the current Speaker has concerns.”

Former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern recalled a brief period under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani when the department collected a sliver of concession proceeds.

“There was approximately $50 million in concession revenue, and [Giuliani] promised if we got an additional $5 million we could keep it” Stern said. “It lasted for one or two years, and then [the Office of Management and Budget] said, ‘We were going to cut your budget by $10 million, but now we’ll cut it by $5 million.’ We stopped counting, because we gained nothing.”

Secret deals?

Stern worried that City Council involvement would “politicize” the awarding of concession contracts, but the petitioners charge the process is already too political — and secretive.

“Not all of the concession money is going to the city,” said Geoffrey Croft, president of NYC Park Advocates. “The city is allowing some conservancies to divert funds to take care of certain parks.”

Petition organizer and former City Council member Carol Greitzer wondered, “What happens in the poor neighborhoods, where there aren’t any rich people to form a conservancy and put private money into the parks?”

‘Dog haters’

Former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern slammed the petitioners as “busy bodies who don’t recognize an honest Parks Dept. when they see one.” He cited them by name, calling some “dog haters” and others “those people against the coffee shop in Stuyvesant Square.”

“We’re lucky to have conservancies,” he said. “Parks is the most underfunded of city agencies.”


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