Charging residents — who can barely make ends meet as it is — to use city parks, is “an insane idea,” Mayor Segarra said during the Green Ribbon Task Force’s presentation. Segarra was not responding to one of their suggestions, but adding his own commentary on an idea that gets offered up every so often. Besides Segarra and a number of community members, Chief Operating Officer David Panagore and Councilpersons Painter and Cotto attended the presentation held tonight at the Hartford Public Library.
The GRTF convened in August of 2010 with the intention of examining city park conditions and making recommendations for improvements. The task force was created after parks and environmental issues were named as priority items during the One City, One Plan discussions. Tonight, the GRTF, after 45 meetings and 1500-2000 volunteer hours, presented its report.
Co-chairs Bernadine Silvers and Tyler Smith presented highlights from the thirty page report. Not taking a poor economy as an easy excuse for inaction, Silvers said “in hard times, our trees are air conditioners.” Mayor Segarra acknowledged that the “parks need a lot more love and attention than they’ve been getting.”
One major recommendation for improving park conditions is to rebuild the number of people working in the parks. The report indicates that in “1992 Hartford had 78 park workers, many of them with specialized skills in park maintenance. By 2007 that number had dropped by 20 paid staff positions, and today it stands at 29.” Funding for parks and recreation as been cut in half over a span of a decade, with most of the cuts made pre-economic downturn. During the presentation, the GRTF stated that they would like to see an incremental increase in maintenance staff over five years. The written report states that the goal is to increase the maintenance staff to 65.
Another major change suggested by the GRTF is to reunite Parks and Recreation Services. A shortsighted decision during 1996 placed park maintenance under the care of the Department of Public Works and threw recreational services in with Health and Human Services. Besides creating a bizarre, artificial division, the parks have suffered due to the lack of a qualified Parks Director. At the same time, the GRTF recommends that for the immediate future, Parks and Recreation Services remain under the Department of Public Works unless it is either re-established as its own department, or placed within a new Department of Environmental Services. This suggestion seems odd. While the task force acknowledges that the “DPW currently has a capable director who is committed to improving park services,” it was stated by more than one community member that the DPW director’s specialty is infrastructure, not landscaping. The lack of expertise has had negative effects. As one community member put it, Hartford has five park ponds, but “we don’t have anyone who knows how to manage ponds.” This is evident to anyone who has visited the park ponds recently.The GRTF itself recommends that a “highly qualified Parks Director” be hired within FY 2011-2012.
A fourth recommendation is that the Hartford Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission be strengthened and restructured. The final major suggestion is that a Department of Environmental Services be created. This would address not just city parks, but issues related to that of the tree canopy and reducing the number of blacktop surface lots; the call to remove some of the latter was met with a round of applause. The establishment of this new department, they said, should occur at a time when it makes economic sense to do so.
In all, the GRTF made 42 recommendations. Some smaller steps they would like to see taken include better dissemination of information about Hartford’s parks. They note, “there is no listing for parks in the telephone book, except for the direction to call 311. Even if an individual were to call 311, their inquiry would go through a referral process, or be referred to a call center that may be closed even during normal business hours.” Additionally, they state that there is limited information about the parks on the City website.
Another recommendation is for HHS and DPW staff, along with event sponsors, to stop disrespecting parks by driving/parking their vehicles on lawns. This is a routine practice in Bushnell Park, the wear-and-tear of which is visible. During major music festivals, the norm is for people involved with the event to park their vehicles behind the performance pavilion. Besides the issue of vehicles driving on surfaces not intended for them, the problem of litter was brought up; the GRTF wants the DPW to “enforce these policies and have authority to issue citations.” The environmental impact of major events was questioned again: “most events bring very little direct economic benefit to the city government. Fee waivers requested by event producers and routinely approved by City Council encourages overuse of many of the larger parks often with very little or no return to the city. [...] Serious thought should be given to whether the impact that special events have on the parks is worth the cost of damage to the parks and increased maintenance.”
One other recommendation worth noting is that “the city must be vigilant and guarded about relinquishing or selling existing park land for short-term economic gain.” Within the report, the GRTF suggests increasing park revenue through grants and developing a 501(c)(3) to receive donations.