Jutta Mason: Parks story
( display item 12)
City budget for the park 18-Jan-2012 
A summer serial, continuing into the fall, September 22, 2011 , Chapter Twelve
Recap: Dufferin Grove Park is doing things all wrong, says the current management of Parks, Forestry and Recreation (PFR). The way it is run leaves the city “vulnerable and open to major risk factors.” So a new supervisor was placed there. One of her tasks in 2011 was to dissect out the traditional activities from the many “programs that represent anomalies for PFR.”
If the “anomalies” are going to be eliminated, sanitized, or commercialized, it’s time to write down the story of how they grew up in the first place. Memory is short. I’m writing a record of how the trial-and-error approach shaped Dufferin Grove Park, up until it ran into PFR’s most recent “functional restructuring.” If the anomalies fade away, park users will still have a reference. When the time comes for a new wind to blow from neighbourhoods into City Hall, park users may want to pick up the thread and continue.
Soon after Chapter Eleven was published, National Post reporter Peter Kuitenbrouwer wrote a two-page article about Dufferin Grove. When he interviewed me, Peter mentioned that PFR Recreation Director Janie Romoff and PFR Media Director Graham Mitchell both told him that they could see very little in these chapters about unmaking the park. In future chapters, as my account moves closer to the present, the unmaking elements will become more evident. But for now, my story is more like a back and forth between what works and what doesn’t, who offers support and who exists in a world of “no you can’t.” As in many public service bureaucracies, the unmaking element expands as the size of the operation expands. Control and homogeneity come to seem far more urgent than paying attention to individuals and making use of their singular gifts. This chapter continues the story of raising money at the park, before the park’s trial-and-error methods were flagged as a problem that must be brought under control.
At the end of the last chapter, I described the park friends’ mounting distaste for shaping and reshaping park activities to correspond to the shifting tastes and guidelines of funders. (When I write “park friends” I mean both park users and local park program-staff, who by then were pulling together.) Since the park activities included more and more pay-what-you-can food, we could see that the small amounts of income for the park were growing. We wondered—could we get away from grant-writing and fund the park’s extra programs locally, mostly through park food?
In 1998, the money collected from park snacks was $2700. Even after paying for the groceries needed to make the snacks, there was a bit left over to try new programs. We called it “cookie money.” The amount doubled for each of the next two years. Then in 2001 the food programs took a dive. The new post-amalgamation PFR general manager, Claire Tucker Reid, let it be known that PFR would no longer have a part-time, year-round program-staff person for Dufferin Grove. The seasonal program staff would show up for two months in summer and three months in winter, and disappear the rest of the year. Lily Weston, our park program worker, left for a job as a class assistant in the school system (where she got benefits, unlike with the city). We held a “goodbye to the park as we know it” party. Over a hundred park friends came to the rink clubhouse. The city councillor announced that he would try to persuade the general manager to change her mind. He asked park users to put together a “Community Blueprint” of those park program they didn’t want to lose. There are photographs from that time, showing separate clusters of park users crammed into the clubhouse, intensively making lists.
The Councillor brought these lists to the general manager and prevailed on her not to cut the budget. So in 2002 the park programs slowly returned back to their previous levels. But everyone could see that money would be a recurring issue. We felt we had to get more on top of the details. “Not enough money” was not specific enough, too elastic, too readily used to shut down good programs. So I called Don Boyle, the PFR director who was in charge of downtown, and asked him, “how much does it cost to run Dufferin Grove Park?” He said that they were working on the individual “cost centres” but that they weren’t quite finished, so he couldn’t tell me the separate cost of any one location.
That got me worried. Don Boyle had told me right after amalgamation that since he was from Etobicoke, where they knew how to deal with budgets, it would take him only 6 months to straighten out the downtown Toronto budget, which he seemed to think was a mess. Three years later, he couldn’t say how much Dufferin Grove cost. I asked if a few of us could try to narrow down the costs by speaking directly to his front-line managers. To my surprise, he said, “sure!” So I talked to the technical services supervisor, and the Parks supervisor , and the Recreation supervisor. They tried to be helpful, but it was clear that there were some costs they didn’t really know, like for instance the utilities costs for running the rink.
So we had to use our best guesses. In May 2002, the park friends put out a side-by-side report detailing the 2001 “cookie money” income and expenses, and the City’s park expenses, as close as we could figure those out. The funds raised and spent at the park were just under $23,000, and we figured that the direct cost for running the park, all in (ice maintenance and grass cutting as well as park programs), was likely around $175,000. It was only our best estimate, and probably too low, but we made an impression (not necessarily positive), with our determination to get a number.
Instead of Dufferin Grove having one main part-time program staff, we decided that the restored City funding-allocation for that person should be divided into 4 or 5 part-time staff. These included a few keen cooks. We began baking bread as a fundraiser at the farmers’ market. Despite a lot of burned loaves at the beginning, the amount of “cookie money” started to climb. Mini-pizzas and winter soups became standard items at the zamboni café. The first Friday Night Supper was dished up inside the rink house on a bitterly cold night in December. The following March, after the rink season ended, part-time staff labored (unpaid) for many hours over a 43-page funding application for a City “Food and Hunger Action” grant that would give the rink house an additional small kitchen in an unused alcove of the building’s L-shaped zamboni garage. (At that time, the garage stood empty for nine months of the year.) The proposal allowed for a community and “incubator” kitchen. The kitchen alcove would be separated by a glass wall and sliding doors.
The proposal was accepted, and the kitchen was built. That year the food income tripled, to $35,000. But just before Christmas, some City of Toronto Occupational Health and Safety inspectors came to the park and said the kitchen should be torn out. They felt that the garage was meant for a zamboni and nothing else. This news caused a big ruckus, and resulted in the first outpouring of eloquent community letters, describing why Dufferin Grove was a good place for the neighbourhood. David Miller, the mayor at the time, himself sent word that the kitchen would be allowed to stay.
By the summer of 2004, the park had outdoor theatre, youth programs, summer programs, newcomer programs, garden club, Dusk Dances, music, campfires, playground programs. Quite a few of the programs were put on by non-City groups, but they needed staff support. The city’s year-round allocation of program funding, including the seasonal wading pool and rink staff, totalled $81,000. We had young people eager to work, and they put their various talents to use, expanding their range from wading pool minding and rink guarding to working with performances, helping park vegetable gardeners, and cooking in the wood ovens. The food income that year was $63,000.
But near the end of the summer we had a bad surprise. Despite all the money coming in, we realized in August that we had been steadily overspending the city program allocation. Because of a delay in processing new workers, some staff had not been getting their city cheques from downtown. Instead of complaining about it, the new staff had used this delay as a welcome method of enforced savings. So the senior staff had not logged their cheques for our running tally of available city funds. When we did the math, we realized that we had overspent the summer funds by almost $9000. In effect, we had already used up a big chunk of the rink staffing money allocated for the winter.
From the September 2004 newsletter: “ We cleaned out what was left in the "Friends of Dufferin Grove Park" bank account to start paying back wages, and then the park staff got together and made a plan. Instead of getting rid of some staff, they all took lower wages and did some of the work for free. This meant that the fund-raising target was lowered. Then we put up some posters in the park. Jutta mentioned our troubles on the weekly market news e-mails.
"Good things began to happen. Over the next three weeks, cheques arrived in the mail or were dropped off at the park, in amounts between $20 and $500. A few cheques were from grandparents in other cities. Some of the benefactors were known to us, some not. Some families who clearly had little money to spare, still gave us a donation.'' Jutta was often stopped when she was in the park so people could donate. When the staff tried to give change to diners at Friday night supper, it was sometimes refused. Then the cool weather let go its grip enough in August that the park food sales went up, both at the food cart by the wading pool and at Friday Night Supper. The summer baking staff baked their heads off and raised more money selling bread at the farmers' market. So the park income by the end of August was $13,923.58. After the August park supplies and the groceries were deducted, that left $8690.12.”''
And from the newsletter’s editorial: “When our park budget crisis became known, some folks waggled their eyebrows a bit. Surely this was a sign that we should now do the right thing, get a board with an executive, have proper meetings with proper protocol? At this park there are so many things done on a handshake, so many surprises, so much informal talk at the sand pit or the oven. Surely we would not have got into this trouble if we'd been more organized?
Then again, perhaps we would not have had so much to get in trouble about, because our park might have stayed more like the orphan that it was formerly. The city is rich in defunct formal advisory groups that foundered before the ink was dry on their carefully-worded constitutions. Dufferin Grove Park is rich in friends, i.e. over the years there has been a gradual accumulation of people who are friendly to the park, and friendly to one another at the park.”
Friends are stronger than constitutions, trust is stronger than protocols. The park friends came through, and the parks’ finances were put right for that year. But we knew that as long as so many people wanted to come to Dufferin Grove, the same problem would come up again the next year. The real cost of running the park (often called a “community centre without walls”), counting the donated “cookie money” revenue, was already almost $150,000 a year. We made a case to the City. Compared to the six community recreation centres with walls that were located within a 15-minute bike ride from Dufferin Grove, we said, Dufferin Grove was a bargain. The two nearest centres cost nearly $1 million a year to run, and they arguably had fewer people using them. If we could just get an allocation of $200,000 City money a year for all city programs – the combined income of two city managers at that time – we would endeavour to stay at that level, and adjust the extra park programs so that the only additional spending would be what we could get in neighbourhood donations.
We made this request a few years in a row, but always came up empty. We argued that we were a cheap kind of lab, and the City could learn from our experiments. But “the City doesn’t do labs.” So we kept on scrambling. The budget inched up slowly. The part-time staff – who were more ingenious and engaged every year, as they saw so many of their projects bearing fruit – did a lot of work for free. The park was in a precarious situation. This was at the same time as encomiums came from all directions. We wondered – if Dufferin Grove was such a “model,” why couldn’t we get solid ground under our feet? Too many people (program staff and also me) were working too many hours without pay. Program staff were having trouble paying their rent. I had contracted with the Metcalf Foundation to write a little book about the park, but I had no time to write, between the various crises and the effort of trying to keep the park a pleasant place when it was sometimes so crowded. Much of my writing-grant money went back into park programs. Frustrating.
We had to find a solution, so we finally seized on an unusual plan. I had been reading a book by the political theorist Adam Michnik, about how people could work with governments that seemed to be in trouble. What can people do in situations that are no longer very responsive to circumstances, but stuck in rules or policies that are not really working? The Polish union movement, as described by Michnik, had resolved, in a very unpromising political climate, to behave as if thoughtful, independent action could still happen. We were not in the Poland of 1983, but we were at a dead end. The city had many parks that were often empty, and Dufferin Grove was filled with life. The park’s program staff were cheap, their work often ingenious, and there were plenty of park friends to help out when needed. But year after year City Hall seemed uninterested in making use of our experiences. Could we find a way to get help from the City, as though it was not impossible?
I went to see the recreation supervisor, Tino DeCastro. I told him that the 2006 park donation income had reached almost $80,000. The money came from PWYC food, from skate loans, and from random good-will donations. About 90 per cent of it was going back into the park programs. The other ten per cent was going into a few citywide projects, most notably our efforts to take the pressure off Dufferin Rink crowding in the winter by promoting improvements at the other city outdoor rinks. We were holding up our end of the bargain that we had so often proposed to the City. I asked Tino: could he even it up by carrying out our suggestion for the city’s end of the bargain?
Recreation supervisors are in charge of the part-time staff budget. Because Tino was good at attracting lots of paying classes to the community centres he looked after, he had the funds, that much was clear. But he was supposed to return most of the extra class fees earned at his centres back into PFR's general revenue, not keep them for Ward 18 parks. Still, he understood our problem very well. He said he'd top up the Dufferin Grove program staff budget to the $200,000 we needed, and tell his managers after. Dufferin Grove staff said they would monitor the spending week by week, to make sure that it never went over this budget.
The next time Tino went for a budget meeting with the director, the revised Dufferin Grove budget line was there. The director made no objection. The park staff took pains to regulate park activities so that spending stayed within the agreed limits. The allocation was the right size, so that unpaid work diminished. Finally, the resources to run the park programs were there. One result was that the “cookie money” also increased, so drastically that we had to reorganize the park friends’ finances. We decided that our little research group, the “Centre for Local Research into Public Space” (CELOS) would have to set up a proper book-keeping system, as part of our “practical research” mandate. In the next chapter, I’ll tell the story of CELOS, and how it came to take this role.
The dictionary page
A new vocabulary has grown up within the City bureaucracy to accompany the “functional model” used for the most recent restructuring of Parks, Forestry and Recreation (PFR). (1) There are institutional ways of bending common words like “action,” (2) there are words which have one meaning in the community letters to Councillor Bailao but a very different meaning when used by PFR management, like “food,” and (3) there are other words, like “compliance” and “authorization” which are almost never used in ordinary talk. But they can act as sticks to whack people with. There are so many of these words that although I used up the whole of Chapter Seven for the dictionary, I only got to the beginning of the “F” words. Since then I’ve been adding one dictionary page for every chapter. It will be interesting to see how long it takes to get through the alphabet.
Internal staffing matter: this term has been used to refer to many issues that arguably need public discussion. For example, I recently asked the recreation supervisor to address three specific concerns about her hiring methods for part-time program staff. This was after a second excellent park worker had somehow "failed" the new part-time recreation staff standard interview that the supervisor instituted when she took over the park. My concerns were (1) that the interview format the supervisor is using is badly suited for identifying good city workers; (2) that she continues to give no weight to the skills and experience of Dufferin Grove coordinator staff, who are not consulted in the hiring decisions of people whose work is well known to them and (3) her apparent lack of attention to the particular talents of at-risk youth as part-time recreation staff candidates. The supervisor wrote back only that the hiring practices I was questioning are “an internal staffing matter…with privacy* implications.” The supervisor used the same phrase to respond to questions about the extra staff time (and cost) it takes to replace the work of local park program staff with more expensive non-local full-time staff: “this is an internal staffing matter.”
Many of these terms will come up later individually in the dictionary.
The Money Story
Grants and donations used for Dufferin Grove Park and other CELOS projects, 1999 - 2009:
1999: City of Toronto Recreation Grant, $4000; Ontario Film Corporation, $2500; Maytree Foundation, $1600; Crankee Consort Theatre Fund, $8000; G.H. Wood, $2500; Ontario Government student wage subsidy, $6876. 2000: Total grants including Maytree grant for smaller oven, $23,226; 2001: Total grants: $3250; 2002: Total grants: $1,916; 2003: Food and Hunger Action grant, $20,000; Parks and Trees Foundation, $2000; GH Wood Foundation, $8000; rink user donation, $700 for staff to allow the rink to stay open after 9 pm for youth; Metcalf Foundation, $10,000. 2004: Total grants including over-run donations, $8452. 2005: Total grants, $2276. 2006: Total grants (mainly private donors): $12,900. 2007: Private donors: $13,700; Ontario Trillium Foundation: $50,000. 2008: private donor: $5000. 2009: farmers' market, $500; Federal student employment grant, $5657; Ontario Trillium Foundation, $24,000. The remaining grants are on the CELOS Financial page, at celos.ca.
Accountability and resources
In Peter Kuitenbrouwer’s recent National Post article about Dufferin Grove Park, he quotes Recreation Director Janie Romoff as saying two things that seem worth following up. One is that the City has “more staff resources allocated to that park in the summer than any other park in the city.” The other is “there is no accountability” in the park’s cash handling.
*Resources: I wrote to Ms.Romoff to ask for a comparison of “apples to apples” in the staff resources allocated to different city parks. Could she let me know the staff resources allocated to Kew Beach Park, Riverdale Farm, and Withrow Park, compared to Dufferin Grove? Ms.Romoff said she’d have to check with Freedom of Information to find out if she could let me know, and besides, she hadn’t been thinking of the entire park budget, just the Recreation staffing.
Since the entire spending at each park is of interest, and since at Riverdale Park some of the programs are done by Parks staff, I wrote to F.O.I. myself, to apply for the information.
*Accountability is very important, but it cuts both ways. Now that CELOS has started its weekly reporting of the park’s donation spending (on the CELOS financial page), we thought that it would be helpful to ask PFR for the weekly costs to the City. I wrote to the recreation manager: "What I need to know is the weekly count of city spending in the categories referred to above, for 2011 so far. I'm guessing you can readily get that through SAP. It should be broken down into direct vs admin costs, so that we can also compare the last few years' weekly tally (some of which we have, from when part time staff were still allowed to monitor the park spending) with this year's weeks, for continuity". The manager acknowledged my e-mail, but didn’t yet respond to the questions. The information, once he sends it, will help the discussion.
Fall Story (2011) is published by the Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS), http://www.celos.ca.
Illustrations by Jane LowBeer