Debating Public-Private Partnerships in Parks

The dialogue on public-private partnerships (PPPs) in parks is starting to take hold. States and cities around the country are faced with difficult budget cuts, and when ranking spending priorities, parks and recreation rarely trump core government services like law enforcement, education, corrections, etc. It’s becoming more and more common to see parks budgets gutted and entire parks shut down for months at a time.

For example, New York State faces a $9.2 billion deficit and is one of many states that face now precarious budget wrangling. Overall New York State has 178 parks with 15 historic sites, covering 325,000 acres, which are enjoyed by over 55 million visitors a year. In May, Gov. David Patterson approved cuts that would close 41 parks and 14 historic sites. These 55 parks were temporarily closed but ultimately got a reprieve when legislative budget shell games magically created enough money to reopen them a few weeks later. Given NY State’s severe, ongoing fiscal challenges, it’s a fantasy to think this was anything but a temporary reprieve and that the state parks system won’t face the same problem next time around.

Reason Foundation is leading the push for an alternative approach: embracing PPPs to keep parks open and safe from desperate budget-cutting legislatures around the country. Reason’s Leonard Gilroy was interviewed Tuesday evening on WNYW/Fox 5 alongside Geoffrey Croft of NYC Park Advocates, a non-profit watchdog group focused on protecting parks in New York City.

This interview is available here. There is a commercial interruption at the five minute mark, so be sure to watch both segments.

The piece opens with several interviews of local residents touting the benefits of the presence and availability of parks. Free access to facilities and programs are both mentioned, and residents seem to enjoy the park system as is. But the status quo isn’t working. During a budget crunch there are many core government services that take priority over parks when allocating increasingly scarce tax dollars. Given the current economic climate, the unfortunate reality is that parks will often lose the budget battle and many will face closure.

One of the major benefits of PPPs is that they offer a way to keep parks open and shielded from budget fluctuations. Puzzlingly, the opportunity to keep parks open through PPPs must not be compelling enough for some park activists. According to Croft: “In the last 30 years [NYC’s] experience with these public-private partnerships have created an enormous disparity between the have and have-nots while ignoring the real problem, our parks are not funded as an essential city service and that is a huge issue.”

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Public parks that are privately operated are still available to all New Yorkers regardless of income, so the class-warfare rhetoric invoked by referring to the have and have-nots is bogus. Croft’s argument is really a cynical attempt to distract citizens from what appears to be the underlying goal of many park advocates nationwide, which is to see the enactment of new taxes dedicated to public parks. Or put simply, they want special treatment and a free lunch for parks bureaucracies.

Look no further than bellwether California, where park advocates have placed a proposition on the November ballot to add a sneaky new tax to vehicle registrations to fund state parks. Not sure what vehicle registrations have to do with state parks? That’s OK… we’re not sure either.

Further, Gilroy provides an actual answer to the problem of funding. Private park operators and concessionaires — such as for-profit recreation management firms and non-profit conservancies — are willing to turn parks into revenue generating assets instead of political footballs to be passed around each fiscal year.

The anchor brings up two prototypical urban parks in Central Park and Bryant Park. The fact is the quality, usability and funding of these two parks has improved exponentially since they were taken over by non-profit conservancies. This allows the New York City parks system to do more with less. The conservancies raise a majority of funding, which lessens the burden of funding and financial risk for the city and allows freed-up funds to be spent on other parks in the system.

NYC Park Advocates unwittingly make the best argument available for PPPs on their website in saying, “for decades, the city, state and federal governments have allocated a fraction of the funds needed to adequately sustain these vital services. This has resulted in an alarming decrease in maintenance, safety and public recreation programs.”

They’re right about that. The fact is the public sector is failing our parks, and PPPs offer a way to keep them open and thriving. You would think that park advocates like Croft would embrace this policy alternative, because the status quo is doing nothing to promote the sustainability of the parks system.

PPPs are helping to ensure that the nearly 200 parks in New York City are open and available year round to all New Yorkers. Park and taxpayer advocates alike should see the writing on the walls and embrace this progressive shift in public policy.

Reason Foundation has been at the forefront of this issue on how PPPs can keep parks open and thriving. For some recent writings on this subject, see here, here and here.