OPINION M26-213: Portland needs to invest in its parks, programs
Our 11,000-acre park system is the heart and soul of Portland. It includes community centers, swimming pools, world-class gardens, art classes, summer camps, nature education and, of course, 201 parks with tennis, futsal, basketball, baseball and soccer fields.
And then there is nature: 8,000 acres of natural areas and watersheds and 1.2 million trees.
Portlanders love their parks and recreation system. But now our parks need our help.
There are two big problems: one a decade in the making and the other, a crisis wrought by COVID-19.
First, the long-term problem: 27 cents of every dollar of Portland Parks & Recreation's budget comes from recreation fees and event permits. The maintenance needs for a 100-year-old system and cost of equitable wages and health insurance are growing faster than these fees and the city's general fund can bear. A reckoning came last year necessitating a 7% cut — $6.7 million.
Awarded the National Recreation & Park Association's Gold Medal for management in 2011, our parks system now has three electricians and three plumbers maintaining 470 facilities, many of which are 50 or even 100 years old. PP&R's 18 horticulturalists each care for 11 parks on average, not just keeping plants and trees healthy, but emptying trash, picking up debris and even cleaning restrooms. The average budget for new plants per park is about $100.
In 2019, the late Parks Commissioner Nick Fish formed a task force to examine long-term solutions. I sat on that committee. We projected out 15 years and discovered that costs would likely increase by 16% while general fund allocations and fees would likely only grow by 5%. With no change in this picture, we would see a gradual closure of facilities: one in four. Just to maintain existing facilities and programs, we would need 50% more funding.
Then came the crisis: Commissioner Fish died and COVID-19 hit. Community centers and programs closed. Suddenly, PP&R could collect none of that 27 cents in fees. Presto, our parks system's slow, debilitating slide became a plunge off a cliff: $16 million for this fiscal year.
Without immediate action, our parks system will look very different: even less maintenance and substantially fewer programs when we need them most, whether it is a kid hoping to learn to swim, a senior in need of exercise and friends, or a mom after some time away from her kids to get some work done.
It will mean 1,700 fewer jobs. PPR is our city's largest employer of youth.
The levy addresses the current budget crisis, will reopen rec centers, fund programs, and reverse the long-standing maintenance decline in parks and natural spaces.
It will assure the Multnomah Arts Center, Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center and other community centers will not close. It will provide operational funding for Columbia Pool and eventually fund the pool that will replace it. The levy also will go one step further, creating more equitable access to recreation programs for all Portlanders through free and sliding scale programs for folks facing financial challenges.
The levy will cost the average homeowner $13 per month and generate approximately $48 million per year over five years.
The levy enjoys one of the broadest set of endorsements of any ballot money measure: frontline groups like Verde and APANO, environmental organizations like Audubon and OLCV, smaller groups like Brown Folks Fishing, and major business entities like the Portland Business Alliance and the Home Builders of Metropolitan Portland.
If the levy fails, our beloved parks and recreation system will be unrecognizable. Passing this levy will preserve the system we cherish and too often take for granted — and it will make it accessible to more people.
Randy Gragg is executive director of the nonprofit Portland Parks Foundation. For more information, visit portlandersforparks.org.
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