2009 Winners Writing
First Place Writing Winner

Kelly M. House - Michigan State University
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On-the-spot article
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On-the-spot article

Golden Gate Park forestation specialist Robert Cadwell arrives to work at 6:30 a.m. to water the newly planted elm trees in the music concourse outside DeYoung Museum.

"I come here early because people are gonna come here and do tai chi," he says as he wanders between the trees with a garden hose.

Once he’s finished here, Cadwell will jump back into his green pickup truck and head to another plot of trees. Reforestation is tricky, he says, and it takes special care for the saplings to grow.

But the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department’s massive budget deficit soon will leave Cadwell with one fewer crewmember to care for the trees—with more layoffs likely in the future.

As the department attempts to recoup its $11.4 million shortfall, Golden Gate—the city’s largest park and a national landmark—is beginning to feel the effects in scaled back services and increased costs.

The budget woes are shared in every department within Golden Gate Park—from maintenance, to recreational programs, to park improvement and restoration. And they’re nothing new, Recreation and Parks Director of Finance Katie Petrucione said.

"In my nine years (with the department) there’s only been one year we got new revenues; every other year we’ve had to cut," she said.

Gardeners who once tended to a dozen acres now are responsible for about 40, after hiring freezes have reduced their workforce in recent years. Many park construction projects have slowed or come to a halt. The 2009-10 proposed budget suggests an additional 71 layoffs of recreation coordinators to add to four layoffs of administrators earlier this year.

Golden Gate Park carpenter Jim Anderson and his coworkers already have taken five days of unpaid vacation to avoid cuts. The carpenters’ contract guarantees no layoffs until November, but Anderson said he’s almost certain there will be cuts after that. He fears the reduction in staff numbers will cause facilities and green space to deteriorate without proper care.

"The parks would suffer," he said, citing the stalled horse stable construction at as an example.

The stables have been in need of repair for years, but after funds dried up, they’re closed indefinitely.

The layoffs would save the Recreation and Parks Department about $4.8 million and officials have proposed recouping most of the remaining $6.6 million funding gap by charging more for services.

Proposals include installing parking meters on the east side of the park, charging a $7 fee for out-of-county residents to visit the botanical garden and raising prices to use sports facilities and enroll in programs. The proposals have drawn criticism from Golden Gate regulars such as Tom Nuckton.

The University of California San Francisco Medical Center doctor regularly visits the botanical gardens to decompress after long hospital shifts and write in his notebook. He said if there were a fee to visit the gardens, he’d just find somewhere else to relax.

"They’re kind of splitting hairs. I don’t know how they’re going to make that fly," he said. "It won’t work, because people just won’t come anymore."

Nuckton said he also fears that without adequate park workers to maintain facilities, the park could become dirty and unkempt.

"The whole park’s problem is sort of a symptom," he said. "California is broke right now, the city is in trouble, there’s probably going to be belt tightening everywhere."

On top of the decreased government money allocated to the park system, private donations have begun to drop, too, San Francisco Parks Trust Executive Director Karen Kidwell said.

"I couldn’t give you an exact amount, but our membership support across the board, whether from foundations or individuals, is down," she said. "We’re all hurting."

The lack of private funding can be seen on the north end of the park, where work is continuing to restore the world’s largest windmill, but supporters don’t know how they’ll pay to maintain the windmill once it is rebuilt.

But parks department officials said there is a thin silver lining in their increased volunteer membership, which includes some laid-off park workers who are donating their services while they search for other jobs.

"They want to continue some of their programs, so they’re actually coming back as volunteers," Recreation Programming and Support specialist Marianne Kjobmand said.

Although no one is happy about the park’s struggles, Anderson said he takes solace in thinking community values the park too much to let it deteriorate.

"Who hasn’t said parks are the lungs of the city? Who in San Francisco doesn’t appreciate that?" he said. "The parks will survive."

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