Philadelphia parks and libraries get a funding boost in the mayor’s budget. Is it sufficient?

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Brett Bessler goes to work an hour and a half earlier every day to clean up.

He’s the only full-time staff member at Smith Playground in South Philadelphia, and while the cleaners come in a few times a week, that’s largely on Bessler — whose job it is to direct programming. – to make sure children don’t step on broken glass or sit in a puddle of spilled milk.

Smith is one of 48 recreation centers in Philadelphia that has only one full-time worker, a staffing level that Bessler said is insufficient given the demand for safe outdoor spaces as months approach. of summer. On Thursday, he joined union leaders and supporters of city parks and libraries in calling for more than $15 million in new funding to address staffing issues they say predated the pandemic and were exacerbated over the past two years.

“I remain hopeful that the powers that be will see just how much of an impact this massive infrastructure of community spaces can have,” he said, “if we just invest in the people to do it.”

Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration has already proposed increasing budgets for Philadelphia’s free library system and the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. The administration, city council members and activists who have advocated for stronger, more consistent programming all frame the increases as an anti-violence initiative as the city grapples with historic shooting rates.

But both agencies face challenges that advocates say will not be adequately addressed by the proposed funding levels.

The free library’s proposed $55.8 million budget includes an injection of $10.4 million under the mayor’s plan, an 18% increase in its budget from last fiscal year. Kelly Richards, president and director of the library system, told city council last month that the funding, if approved by council, would be “the largest increase the library has received in recent memory.”

But Richards said that still wouldn’t allow the library to provide a pre-pandemic level of services and programming as staff reached crisis levels. The system is short by hundreds of workers, with a third of vacancies in some parts of the city.

The increase proposed for parks and recreation is more modest. According to the plan, the ministry would see a budget increase of $2.7 million, or about 4% of its total budget. Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell said last month that the ministry would need an additional $4 million just to reach its pre-pandemic funding level – and that parks and trails have seen a 50% increase in use over the past few years. last two years.

A handful of council members say that in negotiating the $5.6 billion budget, they are prioritizing parks and library increases beyond the mayor’s plan. Councilman Jamie Gauthier, who represents parts of West and Southwest Philadelphia, told the budget hearings that libraries and recreation centers “need even more funding” and called the administration’s “floor, not ceiling” proposal.

Council member Kenyatta Johnson, who chairs a special committee on gun violence prevention, said parks and recreation centers should be funded as “safe havens” for young people.

“If we don’t want them hanging around the corner, they should be in a program at our recreation centers in the city of Philadelphia,” he said. “If we don’t want them taking guns, we have to make sure they’re safe on the basketball court.”

» READ MORE: Philadelphia lets its libraries wither and rot | Opinion

And General Council member Helen Gym spoke at Thursday’s rally and reiterated calls to fund the city’s library system so branches can be open six days a week, a schedule that was approved in the 2019 budget process but scrapped due to the pandemic.

In May 2021, the city allowed libraries to fully reopen, but many are still only open a few days a week for four hours. Richards told the library’s budget hearing that the proposed $10.4 million increase would allow the system to “stabilize” service at five days a week. It would cost an additional $3.25 million to staff a sixth day for about nine months, he said.

Gym said during the hearing that she “doesn’t want our bar to be that low.”

“It is totally unacceptable for us to have a library system that is not open anywhere on weekends,” she said.

Richards said that given the staffing issues, it would be “premature” to set a timeline for the full return to five-day-a-week service. The library is expected to hire more than 200 full-time staff over the next year, he said.

The city laid off 207 temporary library workers in 2020 when the library’s budget was cut as the city looked at a $750 million budget hole. In 2020 alone, another 48 full-time staff were lost to attrition.

The Parks and Recreation Department is in the midst of its own hiring spree as it recruits hundreds of workers to staff the city’s swimming pools this summer. Lovell said the department is doing “everything humanly possible” to ensure the pools are open in June and July. Last year, two dozen pools did not open due to a lack of lifeguards.

The proposed $2.7 million budget increase for the coming fiscal year would allow Parks and Recreation to increase the presence of maintenance workers at Kensington sites “in direct response to community concerns about the quality of life,” Lovell said. Pockets of the neighborhood have long been the epicenter of the city’s opioid epidemic.

But understaffing and maintenance is a citywide problem, said Quan King, manager of the Christy Recreation Center in West Philadelphia.

“We’ve been constantly asked to do more and more and more and more, and we’re constantly given fewer and fewer resources,” he said. “At some point, there is nothing more we can do.”

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