Fairmount Park fans rally for more funding

Yellow Trail in Fairmount Park gets a thorough cleanup. Proponents of increased funding say the park system's budget must riseto $30 million to make up for the years the city's contribution has stayed essentially the same.

Holding aloft posters and signs proclaiming "Great Parks = Great City," about 100 Fairmount Park advocates and supporters rallied outside City Hall yesterday, calling for increased park funding and reform of its governing structure.

The afternoon rally followed City Council hearings on Mayor Street's proposed $13.1 million park operating budget for fiscal 2008. That figure is essentially the same as this year's funding. And last year's. In fact, in absolute dollars it is identical to virtually every park budget stretching back over two decades.

Alexander Hoskins, former head of the Philadelphia Zoo and now board chairman of the Philadelphia Parks Alliance, the largest friends group, said the park had been "mistreated, neglected and underfunded for many, many years."

Hoskins, director of Fairmount Park during the W. Wilson Goode administration in the mid-1980s, called the condition of Fairmount Park's vast territory - more than 9,000 acres - "worse today."

In the view of advocates, just to keep pace with inflation, the annual park operating budget should be at least $30 million.

"We're not here about the particulars of this year's budget," Hoskins said, "but because of chronic underfunding."

"In the past few years," he continued, "not a single dollar, not a single dollar has gone into Fairmount Park's capital budget. . . . We estimate at least $85 million is needed."

Speaker after speaker at the rally called for a change in the park's governing structure to make selection of park commissioners more transparent and their actions more accountable.

Such a reform would require a voter-approved change in the 1951 City Charter. Currently, the park is governed by a quasi-independent board of commissioners, most of whom are elected secretly by the state and county Board of Judges.

Council members Darrell L. Clarke and Blondell Reynolds Brown introduced legislation two years ago that sought to merge the park with the city Recreation Department and bring the whole more directly under control of the mayor. After much discussion and tinkering, Clarke tabled the bill last fall when it appeared it did not have the support needed to pass Council.

Yesterday, he said he was perplexed by the park groups now calling for support of governance change.

"At the 11th hour, they succeeded in peeling off City Council votes," he said, alluding to his own legislation's failure to pass. "Now the proposal they're presenting is conceptually the same."

Hoskins, who only recently joined the parks alliance, said the problem has been funding. Any Council action, he said, should also address the question of park funding.

"We think there should be acknowledgment that the funds earned in the park should be retained in the park," Hoskins said. Park revenues currently go directly into the city's general fund.

Clarke said that he and Reynolds Brown supported a task force that would explore park funding issues at the same time reform of governance was moving forward.

While he still supported park reform, Clarke said he was wary of the friends groups. "I'm not going to allow myself . . . to be dependent on a group that might not be there" when support became necessary.

"It is unusual," he added, "that I'm lobbied to support my own bill."

Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594 or ssalisbury@phillynews.com.