Chronic underfunding has made the Recreation and Park Department a prime privatization target
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The San Francisco Recreation and Park Department has a long history of maintaining parks, community centers, and other recreational offerings. In fact, it controls more land in the city than any other entity, public or private. But after seeing its budget repeatedly slashed during lean fiscal years, the underfunded department has become a prime target for some controversial privatization schemes.
There are ongoing efforts to privatize city golf courses, supported by Mayor Gavin Newsom and Rec and Park general manager Yomi Agunbiade (see "Bilking the Links," page 22). And there are ongoing fears that the city intends to privatize its popular Camp Mather vacation spot, something the RPD studied a few years ago and Sup. Jake McGoldrick has fought and highlighted.
Rec and Park has identified $37 million in needs at Camp Mather — the product of a private study the agency has been unable to fully explain to the public (see "From Cabin to Castle," 4/4/07) — but left Camp Mather off a big bond measure planned for February 2008.
"They say $37 million you need up here, and how much you got in there for the ballot measure? Zip, zero," McGoldrick told the Guardian. "It's a familiar pattern: you underfund the hell out of something, and then you turn around and say, 'We, the public sector, cannot handle taking care of this.'<0x2009>"
Rec and Park spokesperson Rose Dennis denies there are plans to privatize Camp Mather or that its omission from the bond measure is telling. "Many people disagreed — including you — with the funding needs and whether we could back it up," she explained as the reason for its omission from the bond measure.
In his Oct. 1 endorsement interview with the Guardian, Newsom said, "We actually made some commitments just this last week with Sup. McGoldrick to help support his efforts, because he's very protective of Camp Mather, and I appreciate his leadership on this, to help resource some of the needs up there without privatizing, without moving in accordance with your fears."
And while Newsom said he hoped to avoiding privatizing Camp Mather, he refused to say he wouldn't: "I'm not suggesting it's off the table, because I'm not necessarily sure that the conditions that exist today will be conditions that exist tomorrow, and I will always be open to argument."
But at least the Camp Mather and golf arguments have been happening mostly in public. That's what voters intended in 1983 when they passed Proposition J, which requires public hearings, a staff study, and a vote by the Board of Supervisors before city services can be privatized. Yet over the past couple of years, there's been an effort to quietly shift operations at a half-dozen rec centers away from city programs and toward private nonprofits.
It's called Rec Connect. Its supporters bill it as an innovative effort to bring much-needed recreation programs to underserved, low-income neighborhoods. "This is a pilot program to see if a collaboration between a community-based organization and a rec center yields a richer program and a more engaged community," said Margaret Brodkin, director of the Department of Children, Youth and Their Families, which created the program and oversees that and other uses of the city's Children's Fund.
But to members of the Service Employees International Union Local 1021 — which includes most city employees and has filed grievances challenging Rec Connect — the program is a sneaky attempt to have underpaid, privately funded workers take over services that should be provided by city employees, who are better paid, unionized, and accountable to the public.
"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.
"We don't have enough dollars for $20-an-hour rec center staff who are directly responsible for the kids and are well known to the community. We believe kids deserve great coaches, consistency, longevity, and commitment," Reed said.
SEIU Local 1021 chapter president Larry McNesby is also the Rec and Park manager who oversees Palega Park, one of the Rec Connect sites. He told the Guardian that while his rec directors are "under pressure from the mayor to show him numbers of people that they are serving," Rec and Park's new online registration fails to reflect the "hundreds of drop-ins" that rec staff serve on a daily basis.
But he said the department has been set up to fail by chronic underfunding.
"I'd love Rec Connect and DCYF to be on a level playing field, because my directors could out-recreate theirs any day," McNesby said. "You can't just eliminate our jobs and replace them with someone who makes just above minimum wage."
Actually, Brodkin and Mestelle note that negotiations with SEIU over Rec Connect have resulted in a guarantee that no jobs will be replaced and an agreement by the city as to 250 different tasks that the Rec Connect CBOs can't perform. Still, they say the program brings innovation to a stagnant city agency.
"Before Rec Connect the rec centers always had a Ping-Pong table and some board games, but some of them were really poor, many were tired looking, none had computers or Internet. So we've had to think outside the box. Rec [and] Park is a big department, and it's not always efficient," Mestelle said.
Public records show that in 2006, the DCYF, whose primary function is to administer grants, sent $1 million in public money to Rec Connect from the Children's Trust Fund, a pool of cash the city gathers each year by levying 3¢ per dollar of property tax.
Both Rec Connect and city workers stress the importance of offering a range of good programs to young people. "Our work is at a more social level," McNesby says. "Every minute a kid spends in a rec center is a minute they're not breaking into a car or victimizing someone or being victimized."
The question is who should provide those programs. "It's society's value system that controls where the money goes," Rec and Park spokesperson Dennis said. "It's a really provocative discussion. There are some very compelling trade-offs argued in convincing fashion by intelligent people on both sides. These aren't easy decisions."
But the union people say that when it comes to Rec Connect, that discussion isn't happening in public forums in a forthright way. As Reed said, "Gavin Newsom never went to the voters and said, 'Here's what we want to do: cut the rec staff and bring in private nonprofits.'"