Where's the evidence that Portland Parks & Rec is bloated?

It's plainly in the open if you review the history of the organization.

Originally published here, I’m migrating this piece here.

There's been a lot of news recently about budget shortfalls at Portland Parks & Rec, and yet there's actually a lack of quality reporting on the history of this bureau.

The evidence you're looking for has played out over the last several years. It really starts with Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who has a penchant to turn Bureaus she manages into piggybanks for her own pet projects - the triumph of her career is certainly the Office of Neighborhood Involvement but let's look at Portland Parks & Rec.

We run a very large and very expensive Parks department. Our Operational Expense (pg 20) in 2017 was $158 per resident, which makes us about the 8th most expensive in the country. By comparison, our ratio of park acres to city acres is 17.8% (pg 11), which puts us pretty middle-of-the-pact, in fact lower than Las Vegas at 19% (which has the same density), Vegas spends $88 per person on operating expenses. A lot of our acreage to parks ratio is actually Forest Park at 5,000 acres (out of the 14,000 acres of parks), if you exclude that then we're like Tampa, Florida in terms of city-to-park ratio and they spend $86 per person.

(For those who don't know the difference between OpEx & CapEx, here's a primer - basically OpEx is the on-going cost of doing business like salaries and rent, CapEx is one time-expenses like buying a machine.)

Why has our OpEx changed? Because Parks & Rec has grown enormously as Fritz made promises and deals the city really couldn't pay for.

Using SDC Funding the amount of land that Parks is responsible for has grown substantially, there's been a lot of these, just some highlights:

- 2014 $1.25 million on Cully Park then $20k on Gateway Green

- 2016 $1.35 million for Columbia Children Arboretum

- 2018 $12 million for Errol Heights Park

These expansions on their own aren't a problem - sure SDC money could be spent on other things - the real issue is how do we afford to maintain these parks? We don't have that ability, as Parks & Rec has operated as a cash-strapped organization for 10 years.

Back in 2012 Commissioner Fritz boasted how she was able to reduce the number of contractors used by Parks & Rec and replacing them with full time employees. This is an expensive change: yeah, we get people retirement plans, but that means that means community centers close, water fountains can't be maintained, that there will be budget issues.

Then in 2016 she went full-on bananas and went ahead and hired a whole bunch of people without any way of paying for it:

Portland Parks and Recreation will create 130 new living wage union protected jobs by the Fall, and the City will recognize these “casual” or “seasonal” Recreation Support staff as part of the union once a majority show support for joining.

Jennie Birt, Recreation Coordinator at Mt. Scott Community Center said the agreement “ensures all Recreation staff will be paid properly and fairly for their work. It creates new full-time benefitted positions, returning many of the jobs lost to budget cuts over the years.

However, while the agreement has been passed, paying for it may be another story. Fully funding these changes, according to Commissioner Fritz, will cost $4.4 million, which coincidentally is the same amount of new revenue predicted by the most recent City budget forecast. Anything less, she intoned, could result in the City cutting services.

Prior to casting his vote, Commissioner Steve Novick echoed and expanded upon Fritz’s caution, adding that if the City does completely honor the agreement, the result may be cuts in other bureaus. Meanwhile, Commissioner Nick Fish said he would do all he could to make sure the agreement was fully funded.

Fritz took all of the new revenue and used that to hire more folks at Parks because she didn't want them to be seasonal or contractors.

And it didn't stop there, here's what Parks & Rec's employee base has looked like:

  • 2007: 400 FTEs, 500 seasonal

  • 2010: 425 FTEs, 1,600 seasonal

  • 2017: 598 FTEs, 3,100 seasonal

What is going on here?

Back to the OpEx issue, let's look at how expenditures have increased.

Parks & Rec breaks themselves down into 4 business units, and I went back to look at budgets from 2010-11, & 2016-17 to provide some comparisons in business unit growth. I also included employee counts from 2006 but I can't do a 1:1 financial because the accounting changed, but I think it's a good barometer of the trend.

The first business unit, **Recreation** saw enormous growth in the "Community & Socialization" expense and FTE's. In 2006 there was 106 employees.

  • 2009, $10 million, 130 employees

  • 2014, $12 million, 141 employees

  • 2017, $16 million, 273 employees

How have we effectively doubled the number of people working in "Community and Socialization" in just 3 years? Where are these efforts going? No idea. Just to clarify, "Community and Socialization" isn't the only thing that the Recreation unit does, as this same unit oversees the Arts and Aquatics programs, but neither program saw dramatic increases or decreases.

The next unit, Support saw it's expenses growth in terms of "Business Services" expense, and in 2006 had 50 employees.

  • 2009, $11 million, 63 employees

  • 2014, $12 million, 65 employees

  • 2017, $17 million, 78 employees

Infrastructure had two categories in which expenses increased notably, "Property" and "Maintenance" - it should also be noted that Infrastructure has huge capital projects that fluctuate widely each year, but we're ignoring those. I'm going to ignore how misguided projects squandered $80 million from a 2014 ballot initiative - let's just look at OpEx and employees. In 2006 this unit had 191 employees.

  • 2009, Property $669k, Maintenance $23m, 204 employees

  • 2014, Property $857k, Maintenance $26m, 205 employees

  • 2017, Property $4.2 million, Maintenance $34m, 223 employees

Some big acquisitions in property seem to have driven up maintenance costs. It's almost like acquiring new lands means you need to maintain them.

Community also saw increases in two areas, and in 2006 had 10 FTEs:

  • 2009, Visitor Services, $1.7 million, Community Engagement, $3 million, 31 employees

  • 2014, Visitor Services, $4.4 million, Community Engagement, $2.7 million, 45 employees

  • 2017, Visitor Services, $7.6 million, Community Engagement, $5.5 million, 87 employees

I'm not sure how Fritz has justified a 3 million dollar increase in Visitor Services. If that has some sort of justification, we should be adding hotel construction fees to the SDC to deal with this. This "Community" business unit is also responsible for PP&R's marketing efforts and "Leadership & Advocacy program" (whatever that it), but expenses for these programs remained pretty stable.

If you tried to explain this as "a lot of people have moved to the city" or "costs are going up because PERS/healthcare" then we would see comparable growth across all units. Instead we see deliberate and massive cost increases in specific areas of business units.

That's expenses, let's look at revenue.

A disturbing trend apparent in their budget documents is that revenue is going way down. The "Charges for Services" revenue swings greatly, and I imagine this is the fees people pay to use pools, take classes, ect. This swung from $16 million to $50 million down to $33 million. If you try to investigate this you might find a lot of red herrings conversations about Parks trying to be delicate with fees, on one hand trying to raise money, on the other not excluding poor people - but that doesn't account for these dramatic swings - and there's no real clues in the Park's documents. Revenue stabilization here really needs to be investigated.

But another form of Parks Revenue is disappearing entirely: the "intergovernmental" revenue fund. This is a fee other City Bureaus would pay Parks & Rec for use of Parks & Rec space. For example, most city bureaus pay a fee to another department to use office space or technology equipment.

  • 2009 revenue, $16.5m

  • 2014 revenue, $1.7m

  • 2017 revenue, $345k

Someone with a deeper level of familiarity about the city budgets might be able to answer this - until then, I'm explaining what I know of the situation from first hand reports: for years PP&R has been a flexible space for a lot of city bureaus: if you need somewhere to tuck away 5 new employees, go use a Park's building because it's cheap. In the last couple years I saw a lot of that, including City-funded groups like the RACC using PP&R space, and other divisions in the city taking over under-utilized spaces at Community Centers. I've even heard rumors that those divisions stopped paying fees to use those spaces - but none of this is in the papers. Is the RACC, BDS, PBOT or other bureaus using free space through Parks & Rec? Could this be a factor in the budget shortfall? Someone at a reputable news agency ought to pickup the phone and verify what's happening in person. I would start by taking a tour of the indoor basketball court at the Multnomah Arts Center.

I don't think it stops with City Agencies. PP&R maintains all sorts of formal and informal agreements with specialty schools and private programs. As an example, L’Etoile’s French-immersion school is a private school in Portland with tuition of around $10,000/yr - they use the Fulton Community Center as their elementary school, PP&R acquired the building in 1999 from Schools, but around 2012 they stopped using it as a PP&R facility but still kept it in their portfolio, it was even proposed being closed in 2018 by PP&R. Does this mean PP&R is losing money on a contract with a private school? There's a long history of Schools and Parks offering facilities far below market rate, sometimes even for $1 a year. I strongly doubt Fritz wanted to force the issue and make a multicultural school pony up money, even if that school is subsidized by the French government.

...

Budget cuts at Portland Parks & Rec are nothing new, and in 2012 we went through this same thing - the bureau has struggled for a long time, yet somehow continues to keep growing, adding people and expenses to their portfolio. It was bloated, and now it's even more bloated.

Returning to Commissioner Amanda Fritz, let's think about the strategy she employed: she takes over Parks right as it's facing shortfalls. She decided to hire a bunch of people. Still facing budget shortfalls year to year, she decides to expand Parks. Then she decides to hire a bunch more people instead of having them be contractors, even though there's really no funding for that. Then she decides to expand parks.

At no point did Commissioner Fritz decide to pump the breaks, take a sober look at the decade of budget problems and unchecked growth and try to right this ship. Instead she figured out way to spend more money.

This is how we ended up with the 8th most expensive Parks department in the country, while services at parks (like, fountains in operation) have decreased substantially.


Writer’s note, the original thread contains a number of comments and exchanges, here’s a few worthwhile highlights


I’m also guessing huge amount of parks budget is getting sucked up by homeless issues. I know a guy who works PPR maintenance and he says he spends over half his days dealing with some camping/waste/needles issue or another.

I think the homeless issue for parks is another red herring. Its often blamed or pointed at as a reason PP&R is having problems. Its a visible problem that most people see, but it doesn’t account for how huge Parks became.

Parks has only 15 Park Rangers, and yeah that is growth, but not millions of dollars. This also seems like something the police should be doing, and this was just a politically easier way to subsidize law enforcement by padding another bureau's budget. I would also bet, if the city was smart, they got some federal funding for this - but I don’t know and never looked into it. I know the program started in downtown with just a handful of Rangers because cops were not willing to respond to homeless issues (after James Chasse died), and the private patrol group Clean & Safe couldnt get a contract for Parks, so effectively our parks became the default area downtown to set up tents until the Rangers were hired. I dont think anyone has a clear description of what Rangers primarily do that cops couldnt do.

Trash and cleanup is definitely a problem, but I doubt the city has even bothered investigating low cost solutions. Do we really need someone with a retirement plan picking up trash? Could we use community service work crews? Volunteers? If budget cuts happen, I have zero doubt we can find someone community members to pick up trash.

One small, isolated observation, 15 park rangers would get you pretty close to at least a million in how it shows up in the public budget. 15 FTE x (70k salary + 30k medical/retirement)

15 park rangers would get you pretty close to at least a million in how it shows up in the public budget.

Yes, sort of, but your numbers are a bit off.

In the 2017/18 budget there's actually a line item request for $150k to convert 5 contract Pacific Patrol Services to Portland Park Rangers. This is yet again because of the stupid labor dispute that Fritz agreed to which converts former contractors to FTEs and eliminates contract employees downtown. Another great win for public employee unions at the expense of Park services.

Another request is $363,760 to hire four FTE Park Ranger positions for Spring Water Trail. This gives us an estimate of $90k for salary + benefits + 1-time hiring costs/training.

In that document the salary for a Ranger is $40k - $54k. A Supervisor Ranger is $50k-$76, and there's only two.

It's also notable that related to the Park Rangers - these folks were hired to make people feel better about using the parks during the day, and although we've increased the quantity of Rangers at parks, the primary KPI for their performance, "has decreased in the past year with 79% of residents feeling safe walking alone in a park during the day, compared to 83% in FY 2014-15." Overall "Quality of Parks" is it's lowest state since 2013 (as far back as that chart goes on page 42).

That program probably isn't working at all.


More fuel for the fire: https://www.oregonlive.com/portland/2019/05/portlands-city-owned-golf-courses-are-essentially-broke-auditors-find.html

Goddamn't, what a shit show.

So the Golf program has been a walking zombie of a Parks Program for years: should be dead, but kept moving forward.

This whole disaster appears to be spearheaded by one guy who ran it into the ground and stopped giving a fuck while he got closer to retirement.

Contract oversight by the City has been lax, relying on trust and relationships rather than measurable outcomes. One manager led the Parks program for more than 30 years and over time his management approach became increasingly hands-off.

Back in 2014 Parks decided to purchase Colwood course for $4.5 million dollars, which was never financially feasible, was purchased on a bad loan, and didn't align to any strategic plan. Also of note, according to Fritz at the time, they didn't even have funding at the time of purchase to produce a master plan for the property. This was a "buy now, figure out details later" type acquisition.

Also in 2014:

[An] assessment of Portland’s courses by the National Golf Foundation pointed to specific upgrades across the system that would help to raise revenues while improving the City’s assets. For example, Heron Lakes is a destination course designed by a noted golf architect. Yet it has no interior event space, minimal outdoor event space, and limited parking. The operator said Heron Lakes loses golfers because its parking lot can only accommodate enough vehicles for an 18-hole course, but it’s a 36-hole course. Customers on busy weekends are forced to park on the entrance road where cars can be hit by golf balls. The operator estimated that Heron Lakes has lost about $250,000 over the past few years because of the inadequate event space. Over several years, Parks invested time, effort, and money into plans for a new, larger clubhouse with event space at the expense of maintaining the existing clubhouse at Heron Lakes or pursuing a less costly alternative such as a covered outdoor patio.

In 2015 Parks creates a strategic plan for Golf realizing it's a dead sport. Their goal to fix the dying sport of Golfing was to find minorities and women who want to get into golf because both of these groups have not felt welcome at golf courses in the past - and somehow Portland will fix this. Some idiot also approved a "Footgolf" course, which is half soccer half golf (was this aligned to their strategic plan? Was this what Hispanic women wanted?). Meanwhile, even with a quixotic goal of bringing in women and minorities, the price to play golf at a PP&R facility remained at market rate, and the facilities had a backlog of deferred maintenance. In essence we were asking people to pay the same price as going to a better-maintained private club, while also dealing with newbies on the greens. The only other strategy to revitalize golf was "social media."

Over the next couple years golf popularity and revenue continued to plummet, even though population in the city rose.

The golf courses themselves are contracted to operators - both the city and the operators don't live up to the contracts they agreed to. The city doesn't do repair that they are required to, some of the operators don't produce documents or do performance reviews as they are required to, and operators rarely meet their own financial goals.

So in 2016 the City Council authorized $800k "bail out" for the Golf division of Parks & Rec. Even though there's still no way to fix these problems.

And in 2023 we have a balloon payment due for Colwood golf course. No idea how much, but each year our debt repayment increases by $50k for a park that we had no reason to purchase!