Parks, Public Works in crosshairs of budget

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Photo by Isaac Stanley-Becker.

A facility for equipment repair needs repair of its own: New Haven’s Public Works Department has lost nearly 30 percent of its personnel and 20 percent of its budget over the past 15 years.

Deep cracks wind their way through the garage’s concrete floor, the result of salt residue from snowplows that has eroded the steel and cement. A full repair would cost upwards of $4 million, more than a third of the department’s current operating budget. Instead, the department is weighing the option of picking up and moving from its facility on Middletown Avenue altogether, relocating to the old CT Transit headquarters on the corner of James and State streets.

If there is a comparable image of municipal disrepair at the Public Works Department, it is the loss of regular park rangers at many of the city’s parks, including Edgewood Park.

“The result of the lessened parks budget is this: There used to be a ranger dedicated to Edgewood Park. There used to be people walking around picking up trash,” said Willie Hoffman, president of the Friends of Edgewood Park. “Now there aren’t. There are no eyes and ears on the ground.”

Public Works and Parks are the poster children for New Haven’s budget woes. The demand for services has remained the same, if not increased, while budgets have fallen sharply since the early 2000s.

Mayor Toni Harp called the departments “critically understaffed.” She said they exemplify the implausibility of calls for further budget cuts.

“In Public Works and the Parks Departments, we’ve already cut almost 50 percent of the staff over the last 15 years,” she said during an interview about the budget. “To cut any more, we would really have to ask ourselves ‘do we want to have these departments at all?’”

For Public Works, the problem has resulted from the lack of a strategic plan, said department head Doug Arndt. For a number of years in the early 2000s, the department did not even have a full-time director but instead relied on the city engineer. The budget, which has diminished by roughly 20 percent over the last 15 years, is slated to fall by another $37,000 under Harp’s proposal for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Winter snowstorms laid bare the impact of staffing and equipment shortfalls. The city has too few plow trucks — and the ones it does have are too old. The department used to sweep the city twice a month; now it sweeps only once.

“We’ve been able to maintain core services,” Arndt said. “It’s a question of doing all the things everybody wants us to do or just the core services. Our people can only work so much, so hard, so fast. It’s a factor of manpower.”

He said requests for eight new plow trucks and a collection of other key vehicles will help lessen the load for vehicles that have been on the roads for up to 27 years. They will come at an estimated cost of $3,813,601 in the department’s capital funds budget.

The city needs a minimum of 22 heavy plow trucks to do its job, Arndt said. It currently has fewer than 14. The impact on quality of life is clear: The streets will go unplowed.

Alan Bush, deputy director for Public Works, said the online service request tool SeeClickFix has helped the department streamline non-emergent requests while coping with a diminished staff.

SeeClickFix founder and CEO Ben Berkowitz said the problem-solving instrument — founded in New Haven but now used by cities nationwide — means Public Works does not need to employ its own inspectors. Residents input problems online, where they move smoothly into the city’s workflow. The number of calls for service more than doubled from 2012 to 2013 on issues ranging from potholes to trash and recycling, signaling its expanding role in the day-to-day work of city departments.

For the Parks Department, volunteers and interns have filled in where full-time staff positions have been eliminated, said deputy director Bill Dixon. Staffing has fallen by roughly 50 percent over the last 15 years and the budget by nearly 40 percent.

But services, including outdoor adventure programs, have actually increased over that same time frame, Dixon said. Hoffman offered a less rosy account: He said cuts administered by the previous administration left a “vacuum” in the city’s system of parks.

Multiple park rangers said they were not authorized to discuss the condition of the parks they patrol. Dixon said they are not authorized to speak because, “their boss knows best.”

Acting Parks Director Rebecca Bombero said the department is stretched thin, with about 50 budgeted positions managing 142 parks and 65 playgrounds. She said most of the cuts have been in mid-level manager positions, clerical staff, park security and the recreation division. Still, she said, “our parks are flourishing.”

“Parks are cornerstones of our community,” Bombero added. “They give character and pride to neighborhoods.”

If New Haven is to market itself as a “city of the future,” Hoffman said, it cannot afford to neglect its parks. Young people searching for a city where they can set down roots and start a family want opportunities to access the outdoors. If they cannot find that in New Haven, he warned, they will go to Portland, Ore. instead.

Harp’s proposed 2014-’15 budget gives $11.6 million to Public Works and $5 million to Parks.

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