By Joel P. Engardio
I support parks. I believe that our parks need more funding. Prop B on the June 2016 ballot promises to boost funding for the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department.
Yet I was a lonely voice of dissent when the governing body of the local Democratic Party (of which I'm a member) moved to unanimously endorse Prop B. It’s hard to say no to more funding for parks. But this charter amendment raises some concerns.
First, Prop B is a budget set-aside. If you care about sound budgeting and fiscal accountability, you should take a closer look at how set-asides work.
Another concern is that Prop B funds could pay for a native plant program that limits where people and pets can go in city parks. This goes against the very name of our Recreation and Parks Department.
San Francisco has 850,000 residents who rely on parks for quality of life in an urban setting. City Hall must keep our parks fully accessible and funded without resorting to set-asides.
What is a set-aside? City supervisors, along with the mayor, are supposed to be able to decide how the budget is spent. But an increasing portion of the budget is "set-aside" beyond supervisor control to fund various departments and programs. Residents who want fiscal responsibility can elect prudent supervisors, but they can only do so much if their hands are tied about where the money can go.
Prop B polls high among voters because it is a set-aside that feels good. When it wins, there will be a push for more set-asides on lots of feel-good issues. Eventually, if the budget is filled with set-asides, supervisors will lose their ability to make needed adjustments to the budget.
San Francisco's current budget is $9 billion. That's a lot of money, especially when you consider it has doubled in the past 10 years. When we see that our roads and parks and homeless solutions aren't twice as good, we have to question the value we’re getting from the massive amounts of our money that City Hall spends.
Voters may want to elect a majority of fiscally responsible supervisors to make San Francisco run more efficiently. But there won't be anything they can do about a runaway budget if it’s full of set-asides.
The better option is to advocate for our elected officials to do their job and fund what residents care about. Supervisors should only fund what works and enforce accountability.
It is telling when Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Katy Tang both oppose the Prop B set-aside. They represent very diverse sides of the political spectrum. But what they share in this instance is a commitment to fiscal responsibility. I agree with them.
As nice as more set-aside money for parks sounds, we have to realize that the amount in Prop B is not enough to address everything our parks need: maintenance, better playgrounds, staff for community centers. Plus, the set-aside in Prop B does not require the money be spent on these important needs. This is not good accountability and transparency.
Fully funding our parks out of the budget's general fund should be a priority and voters need to demand it from their representatives.
Natural Areas Program
Another concern is that the Prop B set-aside mentions the Natural Areas Program as one of the programs that could be funded. The Natural Areas Program aims to cut down healthy, non-native trees and replace them with so-called native plants.
This is expensive and the definition of a "native" plant is subjective. Go back far enough and everything on the westside was sand dunes. I don't believe this re-engineering of Mother Nature is a responsible use of limited resources. We've paid lots of money to put in native plants that didn't take and then had to pay to try again.
If people want to raise private dollars to create native plant gardens, that's great. But when we have failing playgrounds and years of deferred maintenance, we should be spending money on that and not playing Mother Nature with native plants.
The great irony is that the space used for native plants comes at the expense of recreational space for people and pets. Native plant areas need to be restricted and protected so the fragile vegetation can grow. But access to open space is vital for the physical and mental health of a dense, urban setting. That’s why we have a Recreation and Parks Department with recreation as its first name.
I voted against the Prop B set-aside because it is too general and does not provide enough accountability that the money will be spent on what our parks really need.