41st Anniversary Special: Wrecked park - Page 2

Chronic underfunding has made the Recreation and Park Department a prime privatization target

"The city took funds from the city's coffers and gave them to the Department of Children, Youth and [Their] Families," Margot Reed, a work-site organizer for the union, told the Guardian. "DCYF is using these funds, through Rec Connect, to contract out to private nonprofits work that rec staff were doing for a quarter of the cost."

Brodkin was the longtime director of Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth — a perpetual thorn in the side of City Hall and the author of the measure that set aside some property taxes to create the Children's Fund — before Newsom hired her to head the DCYF. She sees her current role as a continuation of her last one, and she sees Rec Connect as an enhancement of needed services rather than a privatization.

"There is a commitment that no jobs would be lost. I'm a big supporter of the public sector," Brodkin said, while acknowledging that the RPD is chronically underfunded. "I am certainly aware of the resources issue at Rec and Park.... I'd be a happy camper if the Rec and Park budget was doubled. But I'd still believe in this program and say it offers a richer experience."

Rec Connect began in 2005 with a study that looked at unmet recreational needs and evaluated facilities that might be good places to bring in community-based organizations to offer specialized classes. The whole program was financed through a mix of public funds and grants from private foundations. The three-year pilot program started just over a year ago.

"The Rec Connects," Newsom told the Guardian, "are a way of leveraging resources and getting more of our CBOs involved and using these great assets and facilities, instead of limiting use to the way things have been done."

Rec Connect director Jo Mestelle denied that the initiative is a privatization attempt.

"Rec and Park brings the facilities, the sports, and traditional recreation. The CBOs bring the youth-development perspective and nontraditional programming," Mestelle said. "Hopefully, together we build a community that includes youth-leadership groups and advisory councils."

Few would dispute the need for more after-school or other youth programs, particularly in the violence-plagued Western Addition, where some of the Rec Connect centers are. But the means of providing these programs is something new for San Francisco, starting with the fact that even though Mestelle works in the DCYF office, her salary is paid for entirely by private foundations.

That relationship and those funders aren't posted anywhere or immediately available to the public, but Brodkin agreed to provide them to the Guardian. They include the Hellman Family Philanthropic Foundation ($50,000), the Hearst Foundation ($50,000), the San Francisco Foundation ($128,000), the Haas Foundation ($100,000), and the SH Cowell Foundation ($150,000).

Brodkin and Mestelle characterized those foundations as fairly unimpeachable, and Brodkin defended the arrangement as part of a national trend: "The thing that's odd about SEIU's perspective is this is happening all over."

That's precisely the point, SEIU's Robert Haaland says.

"It's been a strategy since the '70s to, as [conservative activist] Grover Norquist calls it, 'starve the beast,'<0x2009>" or defund government programs, Haaland said. "On a national level there is a lot going on that impacts us locally."

Minutes from a recent Recreation and Park Commission meeting confirm that rec center directors have only about $1,000 each year to cover the cost of buying basketballs, team jerseys, referee whistles, and other basic sports and safety supplies. The SEIU grievance also notes that recreation staff positions have decreased by a third just as senior management positions increased by a third.

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