Budgeting Parks in Difficult Times


“When we got into office, the thing that surprised me the most was that things were as bad as we’d been saying they were,” President John F. Kennedy.

Recent budgetary estimates confirm our worst fears about the fiscal year beginning in July, and we face the task of closing a $100 million deficit, primarily with service cuts and several hundred layoffs. We face a stark drop in basic municipal services—such as closing pools and shutting community centers—that will leave many residents justifiably frustrated.

Among the many paradoxes of municipal governance: while we slash services like park maintenance, the City has millions of dollars in park fees, sitting in reserves. Under state law, we charge developers these fees to enable us to build parks, pools and community centers whenever they build a new housing project. The same law — the Quimby Act — prohibits use of the money for ongoing expenses like park maintenance or community center staffing, however; the law restricts the use of the money for capital expenses, such as buying land and constructing playgrounds.

For over a decade, we have been building community-serving amenities like parks and community centers that we cannot pay to maintain or operate. It would be irresponsible to continue on this course, so in the coming fiscal year, we’re deferring the construction of about a dozen parks. In our own district, park sites like Newhall, Martin (in the McKinley neighborhood), and Pellier Park will not undergo construction for at least another year, and possibly longer. For reasons relating to shortfalls in the Redevelopment budget, we’ll also scrap plans for a multi-million dollar restoration of historic St. James Park.

Despite all of this, I will push to keep our commitment to restore Watson Park and its soccer fields with the ongoing cleanup of its toxic contamination, and we expect to celebrate a re-opening later this year. More importantly, by using our park trust funds creatively, we have options to explore. For example, we can:

• invest in the future by “land banking”: buying land while prices are low, for future parkland development. For example, we’re acquiring land near the Tamien Station now for the future creation of a park, and we’re applying for Proposition 84 grant money to help us acquire land in the park-deficient Spartan Keyes neighborhood.

• focus our capital-restricted dollars on park improvements that reduce our maintenance costs, such as installing drought-tolerant plants and artificial turf.

• build low-maintenance community amenities, such as trails. This year, we’ll expand the Guadalupe Trail from the Children’s Discovery Museum to as far south as Willow Street.

• clear existing parks of decrepit structures—such as the mold-infested, roof-failing portable buildings that comprise the St. James Senior Center—that will open the park for more recreation use.

• employ creative options for park maintenance—with the help of volunteers, unique financing arrangements with developers, and in one case, contracting with a school that will trade maintenance funding for the shared use of a new park.

I will keep pursuing all of these options, to ensure that we can provide basic community amenities even through this time of scarcity. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you are willing to volunteer to “adopt a park” in your neighborhood—we’ll need all the help we can get!

Sam Liccardo is the District 3 San Jose City Council representative. He wrote this for Downtown Neighborhood News.


  1. “Among the many paradoxes…”  Is there really a paradox why San Jose cannot provide the most basic services?  According to Mr. Reed the cause is very simple:  the average cost per employee has gone up by 64% over the last 9 years while revenues have gone up by only 18%.

    In addition the council has created a convoluted set of outsourcing rules that effectively prevents services from being done by anybody other than city employees.

    Do you have any ideas other than layoffs for solving the budget crisis?

    • Sure, SteveO—
      The “other ideas” certainly aren’t original, but like the Mayor, I’ve been pushing for substantial cuts in employee compensation to maintain services and jobs (that’s why I advocated for cuts in councilmember salaries last year, in the hope that we’d be setting an example), and a two-tier system of retirement benefits to reduce our costs going forward. 
      I also voted with the Mayor in the minority we were confronted with a more convoluted “competition policy” a few months ago that would make it even more difficult for us to employ alternative service delivery methods to achieve cost-savings.  Quite honestly, we often lose those votes, and we’ll lose others, until the entire Council appreciates the depth of the frustration that our residents feel with the loss of crucial services.
      In the meantime, though, we’ve got to be as creative as possible.  Councilmember Oliverio and I will be releasing a memo this week detailing an opportunity for the City to negotiate with a developer over a contribution to maintain a park within the developer’s standard park fee, which will relieve a small strain on the General Fund. 
      Our Parks Foundation has finally launched, and will be leveraging private contributions to improve our parks citywide.
      I’ll keep pushing those ideas and others in the months ahead.

  2. What is not being said in Decades of City Park Mismanagement

    Yes, city can not use Quimby park impact fees for maintenance. State law’s intent was to finance park, trails and open space land acquisitions from developer fees building residential units

    San Jose created park problems by not adequately funding park maintenance and staff for last 10-15 years

    City government promised 8 years ago to set up needed private Parks Foundation which was finally done in 2009, missing out on millions in private park contributions for land and maintenance during boom years

    City lost 15-20 Childrens Parks from Kaboom worth $3-5 million over last 8 years because of bumbling bureaucracy

    City wasting millions taxes on unnecessary developer tax payment credits and subsidies during largest and more profitable residential boom in history while developers project profits were 35-50%

    City government exempted developers from paying $75 million in park fees from 2002 to 2006 further increasing their profits

    City government exempted affordable housing from paying any park fees while adding new low income residents who heavily use parks making limited city parks more crowded

    City government park fund mismanagement required $1 million dollars to be given back to developers because city did not buy required parkland in 5 years

    Redevelopment funds can be used for park operating and land purchases as other city’s do, to improve blighted neighborhoods like Tamiem area and downtown but was not

    City cut deal with politically connected Tamiem developer who was already paying 30-50% reduced park impact fees after credits for private parkland to defer building park until after 2nd tower was build which is years away if ever

  3. Decade of Park Mismanagement, I’ll decline to speak to many of those issues because they were decided before I took office.  I’ll be the first to say that the Tamien situation has left the community and me very frustrated, but to be fair to the developer, he did pay his required fee—the City and VTA simply directed it to a parking garage rather than a park.  Since I’ve taken office I’ve spent many hours with all of the parties to rectify the mess, and I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to finalize a deal within a few weeks that will provide the Tamien community with a park, a school, and a stable (non-City) funding source to maintain the park in good condition for decades to come.  As for many of the issues you highlight, keep in mind that you’re talking about sources that would result in shortfalls in the City’s capital funds, but it’s not capital-restricted funds that are the real problem.  We’ve got money to build parks.  The real problem is the lack of (unrestricted) ongoing operating and maintenance dollars.

  4. San Jose Parks Foundation We are moving forward! The board of Trustees has held its first meeting, the agreement with the City is nearly completed and we anticipate a significant public launch (with Membership Campaign) in late February. James Reber Founding Executive Director, San Jose Park Foundation

    Contact information for San Jose Parks Foundation San Jose Parks Foundation P.O. Box 53841 San Jose, California 95153 408.893.7275 (or 893-PARK)



  5. Maintenance issues aside, the restoration of Pellier Park is going to be paid for by Barry Swenson, not out of Parks funding, as per the agreement made several years ago when Swenson was allowed to rip out the park facilities and use the park as a parking lot for construction equipment.

    The Guadalupe Trail down to Willow Street is mostly a closed, paved street already. It could use a ramp at the southern end and a crosswalk signal to connect it safely to the Hwy. 87 bike path.

    If you can’t think of what to do with the money, you should acquire unused railroad right-of-way which is ideally suited to bike trails. Right now the city is just letting anybody build over it without regard to its value as a transportation corridor.

  6. Hey Dale ” Mr Wise Growth ”  Warner sounds like you are in the dark by yourself again and no one will follow your Wise Growth after Mayor Reed has ignoring it for 10 years