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Parks in San Mateo County Could Face Budget Cuts

By Susana Montes | 31 Oct 2009

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SAN MATEO COUNTY–Amidst California’s ongoing fiscal crisis, San Mateo County’s Parks Department announced on Oct. 1 that it expects to see its 2010-2011 budget slashed –leading to shorter hours or even park closures.

In what seems to be a ceaseless cycle of budget balancing, San Mateo County is projecting a $100 million budget deficit and taking steps to close the gap over the next three years, said David Holland, director of Parks, at a public meeting with the county’s park commissioners.

“The county asked all of its departments to provide a report with three budget cut scenarios,” Holland said. “I’m here to present to you what it means to reduce 10, 20 or 30 percent from our budget next year.”
The department oversees 18 separate parks and trails with a $8.5 million budget. Revenue and special events bring in $2 million. The remainder comes from the county.

County parks have been underfunded for many years, according to the department. Citizens of San Mateo County have been working since 1992 for tax-based funding for parks, to little avail.

Holland explained that an additional 10 percent reduction on the 2010-2011 budget, or a $654,000 cut, would translate into fewer vacant positions in the department, higher online park reservation fees, a reduction on vehicle fleet expenses–and dirtier public bathrooms.

The department would also need to relocate its rented offices in Redwood City to the Captain’s House in Coyote Point Park, a property the department owns, Holland said. It remains unclear whether this plan will help solve San Mateo’s fiscal concerns, as the county could lose approximately $92,000 in rental fees.

Holland described a 10 percent budget cut as “ sustainable.” But anything beyond that represents real hurdles for the parks’ operation and maintenance, he said.

If there are cuts at or above the 20 percent level, the department would need to reduce some positions in the headquarters and in the field. This means that parks would need to close during weekdays or be exposed to trespassing and potential resource destruction.

Should the department’s budget be cut by 30 percent, or almost $2 million, it could cease to exist and become a division reporting to another director, Holland said.

“My position would go, most of the staff in the headquarters would go, and we would no longer have a person seeking grant funds because we would not have any staff to even implement them if we did,” he said. “Let’s hope we don’t get there.”

San Mateo County’s Board of Supervisors will start reviewing these scenarios right away in order to begin discussions with the public in late November. The county will then begin to work on next year’s budget in December and release its initial draft in March, before the end of the fiscal year. Fiscal years end June 30.

Northern California’s tourism industry could be hurt should extensive cuts be approved. Either because they provide a safe environment to exercise, spaces for solitude in nature or spacious recreational areas, parks in San Mateo County are visited by more than 1.7 million people a year. Crystal Springs Trail alone welcomes 300,000 annual visitors.

Holland said because of the recession more people are visiting parks

“In this kind of time where you have a downturn in the economy, our use goes up about 15 percent,” Holland said. “People don’t want to spend money right now, so they visit parks.”

If county parks were to close, several non-profits that organize marathons and fundraising events in the Bay Area could also feel the pinch.
Team in Training, a non-profit with chapters across the nation, could be one of them. The organization raises money for leukemia and lymphoma research by running marathons. The group has already raised $69 million this year.

“Without the parks it would be really, really tough to raise the literally millions of dollars we raise every year,” said head marathon coach Jenna Clark, of Sunnyvale. She trains over 40 people at the Swayer Camp Trail in Crystal Springs Park.

Shraddha Sorte, who works for Team Asha, another nonprofit that raises money to educate underprivileged children in India, says a reduction in parks hours could hamper her group’s initiatives.

“If the parks are not accessible, we would have to reconsider our trails and this could probably hinder our training efforts,” said Sorte, who is a fundraising coordinator.

Last summer, Gov. Schwarzenegger announced he would close state parks to balance the state’s budget. After a public uproar, he later reversed himself and said there were sufficient alternative savings within the California Department of Parks and Recreation to avoid such measures. But California already is facing a $7.4 billion deficit next year–which means state parks officials also have seven months to find $22.2 million from next year’s budget or face the same questions again.

Although it is too soon to tell, Holland says it is likely that San Mateo County will slash expenses across all departments. Whether one department gets chopped more than another, depends on whether the services provided are required by law or considered discretionary.

Most of the Parks and Recreation Department’s spending is discretionary.

“People in California value their parks,” Holland said. “I think that if we get to a 20 or 30 percent budget cut, there will be a lot more discussion with the public.”

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