Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Pros and Cons of Privatizing Central Park

During his State of the County address on Monday, Scott Walker held up Central Park in Manhattan as the model for privatization of urban parks. According to Walker, “If it takes a coffee shop in every park to keep them open, then I'm all for it. If it works in Central Park, we should do it here." In actuality, Central Park has done far more than open a few coffee shops in the last 25 years—it has privatized 85 percent of its operation.

Xoff makes a very good point when he comments: “There's a little more traffic in New York's Central Park than in Juneau Park, but you gotta think big, I guess.” Part of what makes Central Park a privatized success, at least in appearance, is its ability to not only draw large numbers of people on a daily basis to its restaurants, coffee shops, and other facilities, but also raise millions of dollars in donations to keep up with maintenance and other park services. I can’t think of a single park in Milwaukee that can stand up to that.

But let’s just entertain Walker’s dream for a moment and imagine the best case scenario—the Milwaukee County Parks are transformed in the image of Central Park.

What exactly does that entail?

In the 1970s, New York City hit upon tough financial times in much the same way Milwaukee County is facing a fiscal crisis today. The public service that felt the brunt of the budgetary troubles in New York was the parks, just like here in Milwaukee today. As a result, Central Park suffered—full-time employees were axed, seasonal work crews were cut, supplies went unordered, maintenance went undone, trash wasn’t picked up (any of these cuts sound familiar?). Suffice to say, Central Park largely went into the toilet during the 1970s.

At the end of the 1970s, an influential group convinced the city to privatize as a means for revitalizing Central Park. In 1980, the non-profit Central Park Conservancy was formed to manage Central Park privately under contract with the city. To make a long story short, the park was revitalized to its current form under the control of the Conservancy, which generated funds through individual, corporate, and charitable foundation donations. All in all, the Conservancy has raised over $300 million to date.

Through the revitalization, Central Park has rebuilt many of its monumental treasures, established two successful upscale restaurants, and hosted hundreds of youth and community programs each year. All good, right? Not completely.

Before the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, Central Park was a flourishing public park that served as the site for numerous oppositional political and social movements. Women suffrage activists met there in the early twentieth century, gay and lesbian activists used the park to march as part of their liberation movement in the 1960s, and numerous “love-ins,” “be-ins,” and “fat-ins” took place in Central Park during the sixties to challenge conventional norms in a public venue.

Since the Conservancy took over in 1980, however, public meetings such as these have not taken place. Instead there are fences surrounding green spaces and rules regulating noise levels and activities. The effect is that the number of places in New York City to meet publicly for political purposes or to challenge social norms has severely decreased since Central Park was privatized. As much as some social conservatives may cringe at the thought of the 1960s, that decade undoubtedly brought this country many of the freedoms and ideals we cherish today.

And political activity and social experimentation are not the only attributes of the old pubic Central Park that have disappeared. With the privatization of Central Park, the citizens of New York also lost faith in their government to do what it takes to provide for the public good. As historians Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar conclude in their history of Central Park, The Park and the People: “What was gained in the 1980s was a very tangible improvement in the physical condition of Central Park. What was lost was a very intangible -- but still real -- sense of commitment to the public provision of recreational resources for all New Yorkers.”

With the eerie similarities between the fiscal crisis facing the New York City Parks Department in the 1970s and the one facing the Milwaukee County Parks today, it’s useful to consider the totality of the effects of privatizing Central Park—going beyond just the pretty pictures of the Manhattan park.

There are pros and cons that come along with the privatization of something as traditionally public as parks. These should be heavily considered and debated before any action is taken. After all, privatization isn’t the only answer to the fiscal crisis facing the Milwaukee County Parks, just like it wasn’t the only option for revitalizing Central Park. The question remains, will Scott Walker give us any say in the matter?


UPDATE: In the interest of accuracy, I should note that the ultimate control over granting permits for Central Park events--including political demonstrations--is still in the hands of New York City. The deal with the conservancy is intended to be a strictly management agreement. However, due to the wide control over the structure of Central Park given to the Conservancy through its management deal, the Conservancy has the ability to shape how the park is used. In fact, local New Yorkers have frequently sparred with the Conservancy--and lost--regarding its responsiveness to how the public would like to use Central Park.

A NY Times article (sub. req.) had this to say about the situation:

"The Central Park Conservancy gets the bulk of its money from foundations, corporations and wealthy individuals, many of whom live near the park. Over the last decade, the conservancy has focused on restoring the park's architectural and landscape treasures, but recently it has increasingly concentrated on maintaining and managing the park.

'The conservancy is an efficient, money-raising capital machine,' said Elizabeth Starkey, co-chairwoman of the parks committee of Community Board 7 on the West Side of Manhattan. 'But sometimes, the public's voice falls on deaf ears.'

While praising the conservancy's impact on helping to restore a park that was near collapse two decades ago, Ms. Starkey said she worried that the group has ignored the concerns of many city residents. In recent years, the conservancy has battled with local groups over issues ranging from directional signs to playground design.

'There's a lot of concern about making the park look beautiful,'' she said, 'but not much about the needs of people who want to play softball or soccer on the Great Lawn.'"


Blogger Russ said...

Milwaukee County is heading for finacial meltdown. Scott Walker has been trying get that message accross to County residents and the media since he was elected.
The parks, and many other county departments for that matter, have taken a hit because the county board refuses to address the root cause of the counties financial mess. That is our unsustainable county employee benefits. They MUST be rolled back to an affordable the 401K type retirement system used in private industry. Also county retirees must contribute to their health insurance.
As we all know, public unions, and many non union county employees and retirees, will continue to fight retirement roll backs. Since the county board has no back bone and refuses to take corrective action, we have no choice but to lay off county employees in traditional county activities, such as parks.
Under the circumstances, privatizing is the only solution. There are some who will suggest substantial property tax increases to fund the parks and other county services.
That tired old tax and spend approach frankly will no longer wash with taxapyers.

February 08, 2006  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

Milwaukee County is facing a financial crisis. Nobody denies that. But I disagree that privatization of the parks is the only way to save them.

While you seem to accept without question the assertion that county employees must start to pay more for their benefits, you don't at all challenge the notion that some county residents will get upset over a property tax increase. By doing so, you make it seem like one is a necessary evil while the other is an unacceptable evil. Why the difference?

Walker is not looking to negotiate on this, and that's my point. I've also made the point elsewhere that thinking of taxes alone when creating public policy--as Walker does time and time again--derails the public good.

I'm not saying that a tax increase is the only measure to pursue--we should consider a variety of avenues, including adding some commercial ventures to the parks as long as they fit with the larger mission and purpose of the parks. Perhaps requiring county employees to pay for a modest share of their benefits also needs to be part of the solution, not only for the parks but also for other county services.

The only solution for the parks that Walker is putting on the table, however, is privatization. He's not looking for ways to keep them public--and that's not because there isn't any way to do so. He's made his bed on the issue of taxes with extreme groups like the CRG, and he's not getting out.

February 08, 2006  
Blogger Chris Pegelow said...

As the President of the Union that represents the majority of employees in the Milwaukee County Parks Department I think it is time to dispell some myths and give the truth about County employees and the Parks as a whole.

Myth- County Employees get free Health Insurance.

Truth- All County Employees pay for our insurance. A family plan costs everyone $100.00 a month in addition to deductables, co-pays, and co-insurance. Now that may sound cheap but consider that our average wage for our members is about $16.00 per hour that equates to a minimum of 4% of our check goes to insurance which is standard in many industries. Of course that percentage gets even higher for the hundreds of our members who only make $10.00-$12.00 per hour.
In addition employees hired after 1994 (about %60 of our members) receive NO insurance when they retire. I have never seen any mention in the media or from Scott Walker that in the future Milwaukee County will be saving MILLIONS from this provision and by the way it was the Union that agreed to this.

Myth- The Pension "scandal" is the cause for the financial crisis.

While it is true that "drop backs" and the like have affected the current financial landscape, the real culprit was the the County not setting more money aside during the stock market rise of the late 1990's. When the market was earning the fund double digit increases, the County ignored advice to still make contributions to the fund in case of a downturn. If the County had put away money as the City of Milwaukee did during the boom years they would not have nearly the shortfalls that exist today after the bust. As for "back drops", the real effect will not be known for 20 years or so depending on when retirees die (I dont have time to go into why that is, you have to trust me and the acturaries).

Myth- You can continue to cut budgets and maintain services.

Think back to 1990. What was your salary back then. Now imagine paying your expenses today on that salary. Well thats what exactly the Parks has had to do over the last 15 years. Now I am no different than anyone else in that I don't like to pay taxes (Yes, we are all taxpayers too remember) but I realize that I get what I pay for. I cherish the high level of services provided by local governments but at some point there is only so much blood in the turnip. The problem is not the amount of taxes but in how taxes are collected in Wisconsin namely the property tax. Fully 1/3 of Milwaukee County properties are not taxed (i.e. churches, not for profits, government) which leaves the other 2/3 to pick up the tab. A new way of paying taxes needs to studied to make sure everyone pays a fair share.

Myth- Privatization and partnerships are the answer.

The Milwakee County Museum, Child Welfare, and the Boerner Gardens are just the lastest examples of the huge failures of privatizing traditional government functions. I find it odd that when these private entities screw up there never is a call to have the County take over their operations but people scream to privatize the County every chance they get. I am not going to debate whether Central Park in New York is a success or not but ponder on this,
you are talking about ONE park, in the LARGEST city in the United Sates, surrounded by the most EXPENSIVE real estate in North America. How that translates to the County that has 150 parks, many in the poorest areas of the State, I do not know. Im sure fundraising for Lake Park would be easy but who will advocate for the inner city parks?

Bottom line is this. REAL solutions need to be discussed. Blaming unions and previous administrations play well when you are running for Governor, but it doesn't resolve the issue. You cannot maintain and restore the Parks to their former glory just by saying it and then not providing the resources neccessary. You cannot sell enough lattes and coffees to bridge the gap. Our great-grandparents and grandparents gave us the Parks because they believed that "green space" was essential to our quality of life, not to sell off to the highest bidder to plug budget holes.

Chris Pegelow
AFSCME Local 882

February 09, 2006  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

This is excellent info, Chris. Thanks for providing it.

Too often as a public we only get the story from Scott Walker because he is the one the papers interview. It's nice to have some facts from the other side of the debate. Is there anywhere else we can go, a union website for example, to get this type of info?

I'll reference your comment on my future posts on the county parks issue, revising my earlier position that county employees should be forced to pay some of their benefits because--as your info makes clear--they already do.

February 09, 2006  
Blogger Chris Pegelow said...

To get more information on the Union's point of view on local issues go to:

For great examples of failed privatization please visit:

February 09, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


What's DC 48's position on the existence of the fiscal crisis and, assuming they accept it, what would you do to address it?

February 10, 2006  
Blogger Chris Pegelow said...

Well I am not sure if you can call anything a "crisis" if one creates it. County Executive Walker has never had a budget in his 4 years that did not bleed red. However, consider some history when looking at the current numbers. Walker has been screaming the sky is falling because the Pension Board has been requesting 30-40 million dollars for the pension fund. In the early 1980's the County was making 20 million dollar payments to the fund when the entire budget was only 200 million. Today the County has a budget of over a billion dollars. Taken as a percentage the numbers do not seem so bad today.

The real crisis the County faces is one that both the private and public sectors are being crippled by, health care. I am not just referring to what the County spends on its own employees and retirees but what it spends in health care for the poor and working uninsured in the community. It is obvious I believe that major reform on the national level needs to done.

All being said, what would I do if I were king for a day (or at least County Executive).

First, I fully realize that we cannot tax our way to prosperity. However to adhere to strict tax freezes (and if you look at the numbers, Walker has not truly proposed tax freezes) is foolish at best. Services like anything else do cost a bit more as time goes by and that reality must be recognized.

Second, I would give true incentives to employees and retirees to choose less expensive health plans. The County saves $300 a month for every person that takes the less expensive HMO plan. However since the costs to the employees are basically the same there is not alot of reasons for employees to leave the base plan. The City of Milwaukee is great model for holding the line on their costs (only 2% increases in recent years) by offering multiple plans with progressive premium costs to the employees.

Third. I would completely reorganize County departments and the outdated accounting/budget system. A recent audit shows that some departments, like the Highway and Airport divisions, have manager/worker ratios of about 1:6. That's right ONE boss watching only 6 workers. This last fact really shows the problem with the County is not the amount of resources but in how they are utilized. Nepotism and favoritism is rampant in the middle management ranks with hundreds of people making $50,000-$80,000 a year who I think do not do much to justify their existance. I would think taxpayers would rather spend money on people who can use a shovel rather than just passing them out. In addition the County's accounting system of "cross charges" (a system that reqire a separate post to explain) should be thrown out entirely.

Lastly, and this may sound wierd coming from a union official, but some regionalization of services needs to be looked at. For example, there are 19 municpalities in Milwaukee County, that means there are 20 separate entities who maintain and plow roads, fix street lights, cut grass, and other Public Works functions. So this means you have 20 DPW directors, 20 human resource staffs, 20 fleet departments, etc. That is a ton of money just in adminstration and less for direct services. The problem with combining resources is political in nature. Imagine getting 20 DPW departments, 19 city councils, and the County Board to agree on anything much less an idea that would diminish their power.

This is just a few of my ideas. Of course the County never asks us for our ideas to help so I guess they die here.

February 12, 2006  

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