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Grass Without Green in N.Y.

The city's parks, which have long relied on volunteers, could be a model for municipal organizations facing severe budget cuts.

May 18, 2003|Elizabeth Jensen | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Ignoring a not-so-springlike 47-degree chill, several thousand volunteers descended on 155 New York City parks Saturday morning to paint murals and fences, weed flower beds, dig up bulbs, spread wood chips and pick up trash.

This year, the work by an estimated 3,500 civic do-gooders in what has become a semi-annual "It's My Park Day" took on new significance. New York City is cash-strapped, hard-hit by the downturn in the economy and looking for ways -- including volunteerism -- to minimize the effects of major budget cuts.

New Yorkers are being hit with the prospect of reduced services, coupled with higher prices and taxes, raising fears of a diminished quality of life.

Subway and bus fares have been increased; bridge and tunnel tolls will increase today. On Friday, 3,000 garbage collectors, janitors, correction officers and others were laid off. The sales tax is likely to rise, following a major increase in property taxes this year.

To fight the changes or minimize their effect, affected groups have employed a variety of tactics. A commuter group is challenging the subway and bus hikes in court.

Firefighters and their union have focused on rallying public opinion, recruiting former Van Halen frontman Sammy Hagar to play for a large lunchtime concert Monday near the site of the former World Trade Center, in an effort to save eight firehouses from closing at the end of the week.

On Thursday, nearly three dozen cultural institutions, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Queens Botanical Garden, outlined drastic measures they said they might be forced to take if planned city budget cuts, averaging 32%, take effect in July.

The Met said it would shut galleries. The Brooklyn Academy of Music would cut two of its three operas scheduled for next year. The Bronx Zoo would close for the winter.

Although the institutions can often tap private donations to pay for acquisitions of paintings or refurbishment of spaces, city money pays for maintenance, security and other operations, said Ethan Geto, public policy consultant for the Cultural Institutions Group.

"Private donors do not want to give to maintain security and light bulbs and toilet paper," he said.

A final city budget won't be adopted until the first week of June. But Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a billionaire who gives generously to charity, has suggested that private giving will have to make up some of the difference this year, and his office is about to launch a major volunteer effort.

Sitting relatively pretty through all this are the city's parks, which have rebounded from their sorry state following the 1970s fiscal crisis, when they were dirty, overgrown and often unusable because of crime.

To protect the gains, eight years ago the city's Parks Department teamed up with the private City Parks Foundation to create Partnerships for Parks. It is the group that sponsored this weekend's cleanup drive.

The program was created not in a time of fiscal crisis, but as an experiment meant to put in place a "safety net" in preparation for an inevitable budgetary downturn, said Peter Crumlish, the director.

Today, it brings together corporations, community groups and a database of 66,000 names. Overall, private groups and volunteers contribute about $60 million annually in money and time to the city's parks, said Parks & Recreation Commissioner Adrian Benepe.

It is unclear how effectively the parks model could be extended to other areas, but some people would like to try it.

"You can't have a volunteer curator taking care of the Egyptian collection" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Benepe said, but officials say institutions such as city libraries, also facing shorter opening hours, could benefit from more volunteers.

Even more ambitious discussions are exploring the creation of a "block warden" program to recruit citizens to handle graffiti cleanup and other tasks on their streets, similar to the Partnership's "park warden" volunteers who lock parks at night and generally watch over them, Benepe said.

The parks department won't be untouched by the upcoming budget cuts.

The 2004 budget is expected to be about $180 million, Benepe said, down 10% since 2002. Hardest-hit will be the number of seasonal employees hired.

But a state budget plan looks to have saved the city-run swimming pools from having to stay closed for the summer, so on Saturday, volunteers from the Junior League were painting the brightly colored sea-creature mural surrounding the Marcus Garvey Park pool in Harlem.

"Now more than ever, this is a chance to step in where the city doesn't have the money," said Diana Hyde, a 25-year-old private banker occupied with painting a border around a starfish.

"Even if the budget waters are a little choppy, we will not allow the parks to go back to the condition they were in," Benepe said.

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