Budget Blues

A Public Policy Institute poll last November found that 89 percent of Californians consider the environment a top priority. And Californians aren’t just talking, they’re voting. Since 2000, voters have approved propositions worth about $12 billion for land and water conservation. But while this money funds some ambitous projects, it may not be enough to keep them going. In 2002, Proposition 50 gave $3.4 billion to the Coastal Conservancy, the San Francisco Bay Conservancy Program, the Wildlife Conservation Board, and the Department of Water Resources. San Francisco’s Recreation and Park Department (SFRPD) was an indirect beneficiary; its ongoing trail maintenance project at Glen Canyon was funded through a $250,000 Coastal Conservancy grant. Some cities have passed their own bond measures, and San Francisco requires that 0.025 percent of its property taxes go towards acquiring open space, which recently enabled the city to spend $3 million for land linking Golden Gate Park and the GoldenGate National Recreation Area. Private organizations also donate. The Packard Foundation alone has contributed tens of millions of dollars for state restoration projects over the last five years. It seems as if California is flush with cash—but there’s a catch. Much of the money can be used only for land acquisitions and projects, and not for park maintenance or staff salaries. That leaves it up to state and local governments to fund day-to-day operations, an increasingly difficult task in the current budget crisis. This means that even agencies like the SFRPD, which rely largely on city money, are feeling the pinch. Becky Ballinger, an SFRPD spokesperson, says her agency has almost run out of options. “The only way we can figure to meet our current budget reduction requirements is through [not re-hiring] people,” she says. The SFRPD’s Open Space Program currently employs only four gardeners (five positions are left vacant) to administer all of San Francisco’s natural areas. Gardeners double as volunteer coordinators, garbagemen, and even maintenance workers. There is simply not enough staff-power to ensure weeding of natural areas or removing smothering vines from trees, for example. As if existing budget shortfalls weren’t enough, there’s always the threat that voters won’t approve the next bond measure. About $1 billion remains from Proposition 50, just enough to fund existing priorities. The pace of acquisitions is slowing, and may eventually stop. Says Reed Holderman of the Trust for Public Lands, “If more bonds are not approved, you can expect to see less conservation, resource protection, and open space at a time when our population’s growing by leaps and bounds. If you don’t buy stuff and protect it, we’ll lose it forever.”

Comments are closed.