Any Closer on Parks Cooperation?

Whenever the topic of merging or consolidating City and County services comes up, there is a regular recitation of what has been done (think 911 and purchasing) and what could be relatively easy to do in the future (think parks). Since both the County and the City have park land this has always been mentioned as a slam dunk.

Earlier reports that have extolled the elimination of duplicative services (the 1996 Competitive Pittsburgh report, and the 2008 merger report come to mind). The 2009 Act 47 plan instructed the City to "explore the creation of a non-profit park commission to oversee all City and County RAD-supported parks". There has been some talk that the current County Executive and one candidate for the Mayor’s office would like to see cooperation on parks.

Since the 2009 directive the County has created its own non-profit to help the County parks separate from the non-profit that assists with fundraising for City parks and the City is working on its OpenSpace plan under its 25 year planning document. The document has a section under "Policy Framework" and the "need for partnerships" but there is no mention of partnering with the County. It is possible that should an accord between the City and the County come to fruition that there might be changes to the planning document, the relationship between the separate non-profits, the respective departments that provide services to the parks, etc. but that seems a long way off.

What exactly would be up for grabs? The nine County regional parks have a combined 12,014 acres. The City’s four regional parks have 1,972 acres: adding in the acreage of community, neighborhood, riverfront, and special use parks the total acreage is 2,887. Only the County parks and the four regional parks receive RAD funding and it is those parks that are usually included in discussions.

The Trust for Public Land measured the City’s parkland, added in Point State Park, and calculated that Pittsburgh had 10.1 acres of parkland for every 1,000 residents, which was third highest according to the Trust’s segmentation of cities based on population density. Producing a similar measurement for the remainder of the County (895,000 people) and not including the acreage that exists in municipal parks in the County and outside the City the acreage per 1,000 non-City residents in Allegheny County would be 13.4.

County Park Fee Examination

Of the $23 million in total revenues for the Allegheny County Parks Department in 2013, $18.4 million (80%) came from the Regional Asset District additional sales tax, and the remaining $4.6 million came from various fees on activities at the nine parks. The biggest chunk was represented by golf fees ($1.79 million), followed by swimming pool fees ($0.985 million) and park shelter and stable rents ($0.649 million).

The County Council is currently considering taking a hard look at these and other fees as a way to raise new monies (one estimate puts the goal at an additional $700,000) and one Council member noted that the goal is to "set a policy where there is no such thing as free". The County commissioned a study in 2007 on the park system which said this about fees countywide: "reassess all existing fees and charges and establish new schedule of fees that reflect both the market value and cost of providing the facility and/or program". The clear message of that recommendation is that there should be a close and recurring look at the fees the County charges to help maintain the 9,000 acre park system and its amenities. Of course, boosting fees may cause some users and prospective patrons to explore other alternatives for recreational activities.

The responsibility of parks lies with the actual parks department ($8 million in expenditures), facilities management, which was broken off from Public Works and from budget narratives assumed the responsibility for parks maintenance (a share of a total of $21 million in expenditures) and the parks division of the County police ($5 million in expenditures). If the Councilman’s statement that he wants the park system overall to be more "revenue neutral" is taken to mean he wants it to be a breakeven operation, then the maintenance costs must be greater than $10 million a year based on the revenue of $23 million and the stated parks and police expenditures.

Tough Sledding for Lift Proposal

As part of the drive to find efficiencies in County government and determine the proper functions of County government the Parks Department and Council’s Parks Committee might test the slopes to see if there is a private interest out there who might want to take over the skiing and snowboarding functions at Boyce Park. We have written previously about the County’s efforts (here, here, and here) which go back to a 2007 study on identifying revenue sources in the park system. The County put out a request for proposals for the Boyce Park facilities but it was not successful in drawing interest.

The Executive, sounding a bit like the Governor when discussing the liquor store privatization plan, stated "We’re going to take a look at, say, our ski slopes, (and ask) is that a business we should be in. I don’t know that it is."

That’s the perspective the County needs to take as part of its next Sunset Review and not be dismissive of getting the report done and being serious about it. The 2003 Review raised the issue of looking for alternative revenue sources for the parks,

Is Study Really Needed?

Back in 2007, Allegheny County commissioned a consultant to give ideas about what to do with the parks system. Among other things, including creating a non-profit like the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, there was a belief that the County should be pushing for private sector involvement in the parks for "operation, maintenance, and renovation" and, in addition to tennis courts and swimming pools one facility for attention was the North Park boat house.

There was a major dredging project at the lake that was completed this year. A master plan for the lake area was published by the County in April that solicited public input on how to improve the overall area, including the boat house. That report mentioned "alternative uses for the building could include a concessions area or park café with an outdoor dining terrace overlooking the lake, bike and boat rental facility, fishing/bait shop, and satellite nature center office. The plan put the price tag for a "boathouse feasibility study" at $50,000.

According to the County Parks department website, a project that is part of a larger non-profit organization already handles kayak rentals at the boat house and they plan more hours in 2013. So that would appear not to be needed for study. And this week County Council is expected to take up whether a private operator should operate and manage a full service restaurant at the boat house. It is not clear if the feasibility study mentioned in the master plan from April has been completed: it does not appear on the Parks website. But it appears that when the master plan mentioned a "park café" this is probably what was in mind. If Council approves the proposal without the feasibility study in hand, and has a non-profit and a private entity entertaining folks at the facility, does the money still have to be spent?

Parks Philosophy: Dynamic or Static?

Four years ago the previous County Executive made a public pronouncement that the County park system-comprised of 20,000 acres-would undergo a shift in thinking that looked more at private and non-profit solutions but would not involve selling off the parks. This came on the heels of a 2007 study commissioned by the County which examined revenue generating opportunities in the parks.

The reason? Primarily because maintenance had fallen behind and were neglected. A foundation akin to the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy called the Allegheny County Parks Foundation was established, but there was an emphasis on establishing "public-private partnerships to operate some of the parks’ major amenities and attractions (emphasis added)". The Parks’ Department website still lists requests for proposals for operating some of those amenities and the County Parks’ Foundation is soliciting a bid for redesign of the South Park fairgrounds, but private involvement in the parks is still minimal.

Meanwhile the City of Pittsburgh Council’s new chair of parks and recreation completed a tour of parks in the City and much of the same was encounter: deferred maintenance, unused space, and an ongoing planning effort to determine what is being used and what is not.

The parks at both the City and County level are intertwined in a rather complex arrangement: proceeds from the 1% RAD sales tax go to the parks, there are the non-profits acting as recipients for donations and coordinating projects, there are formal parks departments and the public works departments handle most of the maintenance. Where exactly do outside private and non-profit interests fit into that quite crowded chart?

Has Lake Privatization Talk Been Deep-Sixed?

With much fanfare this coming weekend, North Park Lake will reopen after a massive engineering effort to remove some 300k cubic yards of accumulated silt and restore the lake to its original depth of 24 feet, thus allowing for greater recreational activity and use at the lake.

The project went back to the 1980s (being put on hold several times "…as money ran out or technology proved ineffective") but gained real steam in January of 2008 when the Army Corps of Engineers issued its Final Detailed Project Report and the project got sufficient Federal financial support ($5 million) along with state and County money. What was a $13 million project grew to $16 million in 2010 when the County Executive requested an additional $3 million from the capital budget. The final reported price tag was quoted in a printed report at $17.5 million.

Along with a new lake was supposed to come a new mindset about park assets, not only in North Park but in all of the parks that comprise the 12k acres of the County park system. A report focused on generating revenue sources was issued in August of 2007, a few months before the Army Corps’ final report and about two years before the dredging actually began. In that revenue study it was recommended that the County "investigate public-private partnership agreements to operate, maintain, and renovate certain special facilities, such as the North park boat house" and "after the lake is dredged, pursue an operations contract with the private sector to maintain and operate the boats, docks, and fishing aspects of this facility…This operation could be tied into the boat house contract".

As of this writing there is still information requesting proposals for many of the parks’ assets, including the boat house, on the website of the Parks Department. To be fair, maybe the County was holding off on the second revenue recommendation until the dredging was complete. If that is the case, the clock should start sometime after the ceremonies this weekend.

More States Go Corporate for Park Upkeep

In 2008 and a few weeks ago in this blog we explored the idea and the progress in Allegheny County’s plan to look for private sector help for park improvements. Facing tight revenue sources and maintenance needs that have been deferred for some time, the County thought that there might be an opportunity to solicit interest from the private sector but the Executive pledged in 2008 that "we are never going to sell [County] parks".

A recent article in USA Today describes how other states have jumped on this line of thinking and have secured donations and services in return for advertising and sponsorship opportunities. Parks in California, playgrounds in New York, and now Georgia (where officials have stated, in a reassuring way, that "we will not rename any parks") are looking to the corporate pool.

And that pool is not bottomless, so whether the County goes the route of other states (the parks website still lists assets that were considered for rehab at the time our 2008 piece was written) it likely needs to get moving. Add the fact that the parks are seeking increased Regional Asset District funding for next year is not an indicator that the private sector approach is proceeding in the intended direction.

Is Park Privatization Dead?

"The park system is rich in recreational, natural, and historic resources and has the potential to be one of the finest county park systems in the country. It also has tremendous potential to generate revenue from its assets to help with renovation of facilities and development of recreational programs".

That’s what was written by a consulting firm nearly three years ago as the County sought ways to better run its park system, a system that contains about 12k acres. We wrote a Brief in 2008 about the County’s efforts to turn to the private sector to improve operations and maintenance. Some of the parks’ capital improvements had been deferred for close to two decades.

So the news today that the County is going to seek an additional $1.25 million in Regional Asset District funding to "…deal with our deferred maintenance" as the County Parks Director put it, raises some confusion. Does that mean that there is no private sector interest in shoring up park assets or taking over operations on certain amenities? Or were there offers on the table that were not enticing enough for the County to embrace?

RAD generates about $17 million for the parks now, and with other beneficiaries such as the libraries clamoring for more in the coming year, the time would be opportune for the parks to move more of its funding to the private sector.