City Council candidates talk tight parks budget

October 25, 2013
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By Dan Schneider/Special to the Gazette

PARKSIDE—Few would be surprised that when it comes to the importance of the city’s public parks and open spaces, the eight candidates for Boston’s four Boston City Council at-large seats mostly see eye-to-eye.

But at an Oct. 15 forum at the Franklin Park clubhouse, each candidate sought to portray a unique vision of how they could make improvements on a system that is in need of renovation, but routinely underfunded. Discussions about improving park safety, bringing in more Park Rangers, and making necessary repairs to parks were often qualified by a stark fact: there’s just not enough money to do it all right now.

Funding for state-operated parks in Boston has dropped by 20 percent since 2008, according to the forum’s sponsor, the Boston Parks Alliance. Candidate Martin Keough said that funding for parks now makes up less than 1 percent of the City budget. He, along with the seven other candidates, vowed to advocate for increases in funding if elected to the council.

However, current Councilor-at-Large Steve Murphy pointed out that the council is extremely limited in what improvements it can make through the City budget, “where they’re beholden to the mayor.” It can, however, make amendments to Boston’s capital budget to improve parks on an individual basis.

“We could add, venue-by-venue, something for each park,” Murphy said.

The candidates were largely silent on how—aside from advocacy and potential changes to the capital budget—they might go about funding the cash-strapped system. As moderator and former Boston Phoenix Executive Editor Peter Kadzis, a Jamaica Plain resident, pointed out, park funding isn’t likely to be at the top of anyone’s list of priorities.

Only candidate Jeff Ross, an attorney and activist, suggested that the City could look into selling concessions. Candidate Michelle Wu noted that public-private partnerships could provide a means of raising revenue.

One of the few issues the councilors disagreed on during the forum was the matter of leasing Boston’s public parks to private institutions. Wu found herself in the minority, with Steve Murphy, Jeff Ross and current Councilor-at-Large Ayanna Pressley coming out firmly against such agreements.

Kadzis also turned the candidates’ attention to the issue of homelessness in Boston’s public spaces, asking if they would consider hiring a “park outreach worker” to identify the homeless persons in each park and provide assistance. Three of the candidates—Annissa Essaibi George, Michael Flaherty and Martin Keough—agreed outright.

Only Jack Kelly III, himself a former heroin addict who has been briefly homeless in Boston, said that it was much more important to address the underlying socioeconomic issues surrounding homelessness than to hire someone to identify it.

“People talk about homelessness as a problem, ‘Just get them out.’ But these issues are all tied together. The way to end homelessness in parks is by ending homelessness,” Kelly said.

In addition to providing a chance for the candidates to sound off on a range of issues—including the potential location of new parks and how Boston’s notoriously difficult permitting process might be simplified—the forum also allowed community members and advocates to address the councilors with their concerns directly.

Hyde Park resident Richard Thompson told the candidates about his and a local group’s difficulties in staging arts events at Franklin Park, whose playhouse has been abandoned for years and is need of improvement.

“We’ve been trying to carry on the spirit of Elma Lewis,” Thomspon said, referring to the famed Boston arts educator. “But we’re struggling to provide three or four concerts per year.”

Jamaica Plain Regan Youth League President Harry Smith advocated for increasing the number of Boston’s softball fields. He recognized, however, that the city government is limited in what it can do in times of tight budgets.

“The Parks Department does an amazing job of stretching the dollars they have. At the same time, there’s still not enough money to maintain and renovate the fields that they have,” Smith said.

Candidates (from left) Annissa Essaibi George, Michael Flaherty and Jack Kelly III listen during the parks forum in Franklin Park Oct. 15. (Photo by Dan Schneider)

Candidates (from left) Annissa Essaibi George, Michael Flaherty and Jack Kelly III listen during the parks forum in Franklin Park Oct. 15. (Photo by Dan Schneider)