This blog is part of a short series on our recently released Parks Platform 2018, which includes 13 ideas to improve parks across Toronto. In this first blog we focus on the challenge of parks maintenance and operations. Read the entire Parks Platform here.
Politicians love to cut ribbons on new parks, but cutting the grass is equally, if not more, important to the success of our park system.
In the past four years, Toronto’s park operations budget has risen by a measly $8 million–not even enough to cover inflation during that time. By not investing in parks operations and maintenance, our politicians are asking City staff to do more and more with less and less. This is an unsustainable situation for the “city within a park”, as we proudly claim on the signs at our over 1,500 parks.
In 2015, the parks operations budget was $147 million. Four years later, in 2018, the budget had increased only to $155 million—an insufficient amount when you factor in population growth, inflation, the rising costs of maintaining parkland, increasing damage from climate-change related storms, and new and revitalized parks to maintain.
You can see the breakdown of the parks operations budget in the images above (note that the budget and funding source pie charts switch sides between 2015 and 2018). Source: City of Toronto.
The directive by Mayor Tory and supported by many on City Council, to keep budgets relatively flat or reduced, and property tax increases below the rate of inflation, has resulted in continuing pressure on park operations–as well, of course, on many other City operations.
Here’s how this impacts Toronto’s parks:
- Slipping maintenance in parks because City staff are spread too thin to keep on top of issues. In the recently approved Recreation and Parks Facilities Plan, City staff note that “flat or reduced” budgets mean they are unable to keep up with routine maintenance, leaving small issues to spiral into larger more costly repairs.
- Lack of ability to implement park plans and strategies, which contain important service enhancements to create a more equitable and resilient park system. For example, the Parks Plan, a five-year plan approved back in 2013, still has many unfunded recommendations. In fact, it would take more than $8 million in additional money to fully implement just these recommendations–almost the exact amount of the entire increase in the budget over the past four years. This doesn’t bode well for plans we approved in the last four years, such as the Ravine Strategy, Pollinator Strategy, and the TOcore Parks and Public Realm Plan.
- Inability to spend the money we budget in our capital plan each year on new parks and upgraded park facilities. In the past few years, the City has spent only about 50 percent of the amount it budgets for capital each year (new and revitalized parks), partly because a lack of staff means it’s hard to keep projects on time and moving forward. This means we wait longer for projects to be completed.
- Shifting the burden from property taxes to user fees, like park permits. In 2015, property taxes accounted for 86 percent of the parks operating budget, but four years later that percentage had dropped to 79 percent. During the same period, user fees, like park permits, rose by about 40 percent from $12.7 million to $20.3 million. Charging events for park permits to help recoup maintenance costs makes sense, but it does create inequities with which of Toronto’s communities are able to afford permits to put on smaller community events.
This election we are calling on candidates for mayor and city council to commit to meaningfully increasing the parks operating budget. Specifically, we are recommending City Council:
Hire more park supervisors and gardeners to allow staff to focus their energies on fewer parks. Currently, park supervisors stretch themselves across dozens of parks. This has a direct impact on maintenance and the ability to respond to communities. Increasing staff will allow them to take care of a smaller area of parks and ensure that maintenance issues are quickly addressed before growing into larger problems. Additionally, all staff information should be clearly posted in the park, so people know who to contact.
Hire park supervisors dedicated to particularly high-use and large parks, such as Trinity Bellwoods and Earl Bales. As we’ve written about before, stationing staff at specific parks will allow more direct attention paid to these parks. Having a dedicated advocate will help our most loved parks stay on top of their game and in good repair because this person will be in the park every day. A constant staff presence can also build better relationships with the surrounding community.
Create a free Community Event Permit for small locally-led gatherings of less than 75 people. These small-scale community events have a limited impact on park maintenance, but a large impact in terms of community building. Currently, anyone organizing a public event for more than 25 people must apply for a permit costing over $130. This new Community Event Permit would ease the burden on communities to apply and pay for park permits to put on programming in their local park for their friends and neighbours. Larger events for more than 75 people would still be charged permit fees to help recoup costs for park maintenance and staff time.
To read more from our Parks Platform, click here.