Jutta Mason: Parks story
( display item 18)
Parks management try to shift staff focus from output to process 18-Jan-2012 
A summer serial, continuing into the fall and winter, November 17, 2011, Chapter Eighteen
By Jutta Mason
Recap: Dufferin Grove Park is doing things that don’t fit the city’s policies, says the current management of Parks, Forestry, and Recreation (PFR). According to a staff report obtained through Freedom of Information, the way the park is run leaves the city “vulnerable and open to major risk factors.”
Since last May, a new recreation supervisor has been tasked with dissecting out the traditional recreation activities from the many “programs that represent anomalies for PFR.” Despite this, the Dufferin Grove anomalies are stubbornly clinging to life, as the rink season begins.
In this chapter I want to continue my story about the shift in focus from staff output – how lively they can make a park – to inputs, requiring staff to be collection agents, directed to gain as much additional revenue, through user fees, as possible (in addition to the taxes that Torontonians already pay for parks). That shift, accelerating in the last two years under the most recent management, has played a role in unmaking not only Dufferin Grove, but park-based recreation programs all over the city. In this chapter I want to show that not only do many user fees reduce park liveliness, but that also they inevitably bring in less funds than are needed to cover the payroll of the policy staff who think up the revenue strategies.
As we saw in Chapter One (Summer Story), Toronto’s recreation staff used to run plentiful in-house sports leagues and athletic meets, festivals and folk-dancing competitions, pick-up football games and storytelling sessions, sometimes even cross-city treasure hunts for kids, with roasted potatoes over a campfire. Few of these activities charged fees. But after Toronto amalgamated with the three other cities in 1998, recreation staff were summoned to a meeting. They were told that most free programs would now begin to charge fees. Full-time staff would be responsible for the book-keeping. That meant there was no more time for recreation staff to run programs. Dave stopped running the woodworking shop; Sylvana stopped leading fitness classes; JoAnne stopped teaching swimming. Some more part-time staff were hired, at lower wages, to teach the classes and run the youth groups. The full-time program staff were assigned to making spreadsheets and doing income checks for the people asking for the “welcome policy” – the right to join in the classes and groups for free if they could prove they were poor. The supervisors were told to focus mainly on budget cuts. Management began promoting more commercial events, as revenue sources.
Events: Until amalgamation, most of the events in parks and recreation centres were local talent shows or house-league sports tourneys. The formula was a bit tired but comfortable, with parents and grandparents sitting on the bleachers cheering and applauding while nervous little gymnasts showed off their handstands. Then a few years into the amalgamated regime, in 2002, a new user fee policy was put out by the city. It emphasized fairness to the taxpayer and the importance of covering costs for “the long-term vitality of public recreation services.” The talent shows and sports tournaments disappeared. User fees were expanded to apply to even more PFR programs. Commercial permits were expanded too, to bring in more revenue.
From the April 2002 Dufferin Grove Park newsletter:
LATE-BREAKING NEWS FLASH: MEGA-EVENT CONFIRMED FOR DUFFERIN GROVE PARK , SEPTEMBER 28-29, projected attendance between 10,000 – 17,000.
D’Arcy Mackenzie, a friend of Trinity-Bellwoods Park, forwarded this email from the “Parkfest Event Management Group.” They say that “dates and park locations are confirmed” for five “community events” to be put on at neighbourhood parks this spring/summer/fall. Christie Pits is the first location, May 11 – 12, and we are the fourth. The company’s website says they are a division of Charisma Advertising and Public Relations Inc. The “Parkfest” logo shows a ferris wheel, and a list of possible activities at this event includes a Conklin midway, retail vendors, and product sampling. The company calls itself an “event marketing company” and says that it runs not-for-profit events like this to give us some fun and “promote good community relations.” To underline the not-for-profit aspect, their events may also include a “local food drive element” and a flea market “organized by the local neighbourhood parents’ association.”
No one has heard a word of this up to now, no one was asked, and it has not been possible to find out more. One has to assume that it was approved by Parks and Recreation management.
The news travelled fast. There was a rumour that the organizer was a former PFR employee. In all five neighbourhoods the phone lines to the city councillors lit up with people complaining about the commercial invasion of their local parks. Because of the protests, in the end only two Parkfests took place. At Riverdale Park, the brand new bake-oven was shut down for a summer weekend because Charisma Advertising’s permit gave it the exclusive right to serve food. The neighbours complained that the music was too loud and that there was “product sampling” litter all over the ground. At Christie Pits it rained most of the weekend and the midway trucks left deep ruts in the grass. Few people came and nobody was happy. PFR said that the City made only $2000.
Charisma never tried this kind of large-scale campaign again, but Dufferin Grove was in big trouble for being the messenger. The monthly park newsletter, until then printed at the City’s print shop, was cut off. (Neighbourhood donours pitched in quickly with alternate arrangements.) Relations with the new-style PFR management were frosty, and the general manager let it be known that part-time recreation staff hours at the park would not be funded after the end of the year.
But that’s not where the story ended. City councillor Mario Silva came to a community meeting and promised to keep the park at the same number of staff hours. Park friend Emily Visser set up a park website, so news began to go out quickly. The councillor pressured the new recreation director, Don Boyle, to come to a special pizza gathering by the oven, to meet the park neighbours. There, the director was surrounded by park friends who were eager to tell him how good the park was. He said the testimonials opened his eyes. The park cuts were cancelled, and Dufferin Grove stayed on a different trajectory than most other city parks.
This trajectory has continued until now, even thought the axe has come down half a dozen times since then. Park friends, and increasingly the park’s committed program staff, have struggled doggedly to show PFR management that in a time of budget anxiety, the traditional free park activities could still carry on. They could even increase considerably, for a budget amount equivalent to the salaries of a couple of policy writers. While many neighbourhood parks languished, Dufferin Grove staff opened the door to concerts, dance, and theatre; ethnic festivals, school pizza days, new park gardeners, the farmers’ market, PWYC cafes and community suppers, campfires, all kinds of sports (most recently including bike polo, a new arrival), and countless small family-and-friends gatherings that enrich the park with their energy.
These additions took place at the same time as the pressure for Dufferin Grove to conform to the rest of the city intensified. In 2006, a new Parks supervisor suspended the Dufferin Grove campfires, saying that City policy called for phasing out all campfires citywide. Over 250 e-mails (I counted!) went back and forth between the councillor, management, campfire users, and program staff, before the campfires were allowed to gradually start up again. Even then there were new rules and paperwork that made these cheap, simple social gatherings around the campfires more complicated and therefore more expensive in staff time. It took about three years for both Permits and management to lose interest, so that now the campfire system is pretty straightforward again.
The campfires were not the only problem. Around 2005, PFR started asking program staff to justify even the smallest events in the park, and to take out permits. Recreation staff had to ask Parks staff for permission to run events! After that it seemed that every year there were more challenges from management. The Dufferin Grove approach – to remove blocks that prevent people from freely giving their gifts to the park (and to their neighbours there) – gave rise to constant arguments. For example, the neighbourhood has lots of musicians, and if a group wanted to offer a little free concert, they were challenged to pay a permit fee and insurance. Nobody wants to pay for performing a tune, so an event fee meant the concert wouldn’t happen. The program staff tried in various ways to persuade management that these concerts – or juggling sessions, or public line-dances, or pollinating displays, or women’s hockey tourneys – were partnerships between city’s program staff and donours, and should be received with gratitude, not with a form to fill in and a fee. This argument had to be made over and over again. It worked, more or less, perhaps mainly because the staff – with much community support – just wore management down.
The difficulty for PFR management was that if people from other parts of the city came to a campfire or a community supper at Dufferin Grove, they rebelled at the idea that they would have to pay for events in their own neighbourhood park. And then the battle would begin across town. Some examples:
> Jennifer Deyell says that the Friends of Healey Willan Park (near College and Bathurst) were charged almost $500 to have a neighbourhood park day last year, that involved only four hours of park staffing, at $10.25 an hour for the staff. Jennifer describes what happened with their permit: “Lifeguards and their supervisor started to open the wading pool the day BEFORE the party. A neighbour inquired and was told that they were opening for the party. Our neighbour, who was one of the party's organizers, told them they had the wrong day. She was told that unless she faxed "Rudy" a copy of the permit within two hours, they were opening that day and that day only. They wouldn't give her a phone number, only a fax number. She scrambled to find me, who had the permit, and I dug up my fax machine from my basement and sent the permit off with a note asking to please call me. No one did. We had no idea whether we made their timeline and whether the wading pool would in fact be open for our party.” The neighbours who put all the effort into making the park day a success are very unhappy. They say their fundraising for their park is almost all going to the permit fee, instead of the park improvements they were trying to pay for, and they may have to stop.
> This past October, Camilla Sutton and Sally Bliss made a campfire at Orchard Park (near Coxwell and Dundas) to discuss plans for reviving that park’s natural ice rink. Sixty interested rink volunteers came to roast marshmallows and plan the rink. The City charged them $82 for a campfire permit “a gathering of more than 20 people” and $56 for insurance.
> Monica Gupta, the head of Friends of Christie Park near Bloor and Christie, set up their annual pumpkin night and campfire for November 1.The City charged a fee of $140, which the city councillor paid at the last minute. Monica wrote: “Yesterday’s Pumpkin Night may have been the last one. Permit fees for community groups make it even more difficult to have events in our public spaces....The ‘war on parks’ must stop.”
> Sabina Ali of Thorncliffe Park arranged an Islamic Eid Bazaar in November, in Jenner Jean-Marie Community centre. The neighbourhood was trying to raise money for their local park. The bazaar, open to the whole community, worked well, but they had to pay the City $351.36 for four hours’ use of the otherwise empty gym. There was no money left over for the park.
> A well-substantiated rumour has been going around for months, that PFR plans to ask for a big fee hike for park-based farmers’ markets. Small farmers are already struggling hard. Many people think this will eliminate a lot of the markets altogether. No one can find out more about the plan, but market friends have already collected almost 5000 signatures against it.
> Since 2006, various PFR policy staff have been working on a bake oven policy, mainly in a room at City Hall that’s far away from any bakers. While the policy was pending (six years by now), no new bake ovens were allowed. The most recent version of the policy has been presented twice at the Parks Committee, and deferred each time, because bake oven users, including city staff, feel the policy has big problems. In the meantime, the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee has been trying to get a community tandoor installed at R.V.Burgess Park. The funding is there, the concrete pad has been poured in the right place, and the Women’s Committee was told they only needed to wait for the city’s Lease Agreement. The “agreement” came last week. Written as though the Women’s Committee were a commercial vendor, the contract says that the lessee must pay for the oven, and for the city to install it, and pay for all maintenance and repairs and insurance, PLUS paying $500 a year to use the “sixty-four square feet” of park space that the oven will take up in the park. Sabina Mujahed says: “They want us to do all that community work for free and then pay them. People don’t pay to do work, they expect to be paid! This won’t do.”
The draft bake oven/tandoor policy says that if anyone is caught using a community oven without a permit, they’ll be fined $300. Permit holders are to run programs or events at the outdoor oven, that “support their local community, the mandate of Parks, Forestry and Recreation, and / or the goals of the Toronto Food Strategy” – but they’re supposed to pay the city to do that. And they must get insurance so that they can “hold the city harmless” if anybody gets hurt – while the permit holder is carrying out the city’s aims. Under these conditions, there will be no more community bake ovens.
The argument for charging permit fees is inevitably that the city needs more money. But there are problems with the logic, and possibly also with the law. First, the logic: it’s not rocket science to understand that charging people fees to give time to their community won’t work. Busy people will pay once, when an event is already planned and maybe they don’t have time to argue. But they probably won’t apply for another permit. So the City will have empty parks and no fee. Then, the law, from the most recent version of the city’s User Fee Policy: “In interpreting the distinction between fees and taxes, the courts require that a fee charged for a service or activity must bear a relationship to the cost of providing the service or activity for which the fee is charged.” If the City tells the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee that they have to pay to build and maintain the community tandoor, then the only way to defend the $500 yearly fee is to say it pays for the PFR staff to administer the fee. And if it becomes widely known that a permit fee is a job creation payout, it may have to stop.
The dictionary page
This week the dictionary accompanies the main text. The dictionary page and the money page will overlap.
User Fee Policy
(From the new policy, page 15) ''“City Programs and Local Boards will collect user fees to recover the full cost of services where it is determined that a service, product or the use of City facilities or resources provide direct benefits to identifiable individuals, groups of individuals or businesses, beyond those that accrue to the general public. A direct benefit is deemed to accrue and a user fee will be considered when a service, product or use of City facilities or resources:
(i) Enables the recipient to obtain a more immediate or substantial benefit that is distinct from or greater than that enjoyed by the general public; or,
(ii) Is performed at the request of, or for the convenience of the recipient, and is beyond the services regularly performed for other individuals, groups of individuals, business sectors or for the general public.”''
Waiving of user fees
User fees should be “waived” when
* Consumption of the good or service provides societal benefits in excess of the value received by those paying for the service. In such cases, the amount of the subsidy should reflect the estimated value of the societal benefit derived from consumption of the service.
''Waivers (and/or exemptions) should be considered where: Groups of individuals without sufficient income to pay the full amount of the user fee would otherwise be denied the privilege of consuming the service.''
''Granting relief from full cost recovery promotes or advances economic or social benefits, specific City policy goals and objectives, including:
a. Supporting non-profit organizations in the development of projects or activities with clear societal benefits.
In the Nov.4, 2011,Globe and Mail , McGill law professor Richard Janda and social entrepreneur/ tax consultant Shy Kurtz called for “a general system of the accounting of public goods....Imagine that every company and every individual carried their own social score resulting from the aggregate of their transactions.” The writers support the establishment of a “gift market” where every gift is assigned a price. This idea is similar to quantifying of the “estimated value of the societal benefits,” called for in the City’s User Fee policy, above. Some people, including me, would say that the valuation of social benefits is the opposite of the freely given gifts that sweeten the Toronto parks mentioned in this chapter. It’s a nightmare. But it does lead us into the money page.
The money story
Campfire permits: The cost of having a community campfire in a city park is all over the map. Greenwood Park doesn’t charge and neither does Withrow Park, while Orchard Park and Christie Pits recently had to pay $140 each. It may be that PFR staff will be tempted to enforce the narrow interpretation of the new User Fee Policy across the board. They shouldn’t give in to that temptation. Here’s why:
At Dufferin Grove Park, campfires are run in conjunction with recreation staff, without the staff necessarily having to remain on site during the entire duration of the campfire. Each campfire volunteer-lead is trained by park staff, and the Fire Department's safety tools are set up by staff. (One shovel, two buckets of sand and two buckets of water). The campfires are required to be small cooking fires, NOT bonfires. All campfire users are informed that the campfires are meant to contribute to park safety because of the increase in evening use of the park. Campfire participants are asked to see themselves as park safety volunteers, and a staff person is always available by cell phone, ready to come if needed.
Payment is by donation, PWYC, $20 suggested. At Dufferin Grove, from mid-May until Sept.30, these donations totalled $2224.75, deposited directly back into the city's revenues. 2011 Financial Records The staff time for training, set-up, telephone contact and clean-up amount to about 1 hour per campfire. There were about 140 campfires during that time, so at $14 an hour for staff, that means the cost of staffing was about $1960. $264.75 extra remained, to be put back into updating the city website's campfire information, into the city's self-insurance fund (for staff-led activities), and into the twice-yearly site cleanups.
People come from all over the city to gather with their friends or family or work group or agency – 140 occasions of cheerful community development, at a net cost of $0 to the City. In 18 years of frequent campfires, there has never been an injury claim against the city. Campfire participants are eyes on the park, alerting city staff to a few potentially serious situations over the years, as well as increasing park safety for the neighbourhood in a proactive way every time.
The $140 permit payment to the city, much of which has to go to administering the fee and to an insurance company, is not even close in value.
Next week, my story will be about what happens when Torontonians try to engage our elected representatives, about these kinds of detailed budget questions.
Fall Story (2011) is published by the Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS), http://www.celos.ca.
Illustrations by Jane LowBeer