Wrecked park department

Deep proposed budget cuts to city recreation programs offer a peek into what's to come


On Feb. 13, in a fourth floor hearing room in City Hall, large crowds of San Francisco Recreation and Park Department workers and supporters showed up on short notice to hear how the department was going to be gutted by deep budget cuts.

Overflow crowds of spilled into adjacent rooms to hear interim department director Jared Blumenfeld announce impending cuts to staff and hours. Although the department's Web site stresses that "all parks, playgrounds, recreation centers, pools, golf courses, gyms, art centers, senior centers, and clubhouses will remain open," the cuts are so deep that all involved knew that the services and facilities will be shadows of their former selves.

Many people told the Guardian that they are also concerned that the process is intended to facilitate privatization of many Rec and Park functions, giving city jobs to contract workers who will not be able to duplicate the experience or connection to communities of the city workers they replace.

The Rec-Park Commission will have another hearing on the cuts at 2 p.m. Feb 19 in City Hall, Room 416, with more time for public comment. Activists working for more equitable cuts will stage a protest rally beforehand across from City Hall at 1 p.m.

At the meeting, numerous youngsters and their parents spoke of recreation directors mentoring kids who have few other positive influences in their lives. Many of these Rec and Park workers will be on the receiving end of pink slips at the end of the month. Blumenfeld announced that 51 full-time equivalent recreation director positions would be cut (the actual number of layoffs will be even higher given than many of the workers are part time).

Blumenfeld explained that $11.4 million needs to be cut from Rec and Park's budget of the total budget about $140 million. He described some new ways to raise revenue, including charging entrance fees for the Botanical Garden, increasing pool fees, and charging the SF Public Library rent for the 32,000 square feet where local branches operate on public park land.

But even critics of the department say Blumenfeld is more accessible than his predecessor, Yomi Agunbiade, who was forced out last year after he came under fire for some of his privatization schemes and personnel issues. But raiding library funding, which is protected by voter-approved budget set-asides, is likely to create a backlash from the public.

Blumenfeld said he regretted tapping library funds, but said the move is being forced by budgetary realities. "Ultimately, this is a Lord of the Flies situation," he said.

Leah Grant of the group Friends of Potrero Hill told the Guardian at the hearing that the playground near where she lives was recently chained shut, leaving at-risk kids locked out. In an e-mail after the meeting, she wrote that it is "very, very difficult to accept that the programs for the disabled and at-risk children are going to be thrown under the bus while the privatization continues to the advantage of the wealthy and the taxpayers of San Francisco are literally being robbed of our public parks."

Grant also expressed concern that the City Fields Foundation, backed by Gap, Inc. founder Donald Fisher, a controversial funder of conservative causes in San Francisco, has essentially been taking over parks across the city and would further benefit from this year's restructuring by filling the void with privatized services.

Blumenfeld insisted that "rumors" of privatization were unfounded, but admitted that Mayor Gavin Newsom's nonprofit public-private partnership Rec Connect model is a key part of the mix in the new budget arrangements. As the Guardian reported ("Connect the connects," Oct.

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