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Gardens, pools, fountains, summer programs on early parks chopping block

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COURTESY: PORTLAND PARKS & RECREATION  - Community gardeners have come out in force against the parks bureau's early proposed cuts package. The budget process continues Thursday with another meeting and wraps up in late spring.  Johns Community Garden in St. Johns is pictured here. A hoard of angry parks supporters showed up Tuesday evening to the first of two forums this week to weigh in on proposed Portland Parks & Recreation cuts.

In response to Mayor Charlie Hales' directive to bureaus to propose 5-percent budget cuts to fund a $20 million commitment to the homeless crisis, Parks Commissioner Amanda Fritz has proposed 21 staff cuts and reductions to parks programs at a cost savings of $3.3 million.

One of the proposals generating the most ire is to the doubling of plot fees to the city's community garden program, which are now $25, $50 and $100, depending on plot size.

Those fees have seen a couple of increases in recent years, due to similar city pressures to reduce the program's reliance on the general fund.

The community gardens are 75 percent funded by the general fund, 25 percent by plot fees.

About 21 percent of community gardeners last year received scholarship assistance on a sliding scale, most qualifying for the biggest discount of 75 percent, says Laura Nieme, program coordinator.

The new proposal would increase the scholarship allowance to 85 percent, which would help more neighbors at the lowest income level.

The garden program "has historically provided scholarship assistance to everyone that has requested it and met the income guidelines," Ross says.

"We do not intend to limit the number of scholarships provided in the future if this proposed fee increase does actually come to fruition."

Still, many gardeners say the proposal simply doesn't make any sense, and will impact low-income people the hardest.

"I think it's a factor of the gardens being so expensive, why the North (Portland) gardens are so empty," says Helen Ost, manager of the Johns Community Garden in the Cathedral Park neighborhood. "We have to do more outreach."

Twenty of her 82 plots at are vacant, Ost says, in large part because her neighbors can barely afford the current fee.

"It used to be less expensive," she says. "We lost a lot of the low-income people."

While the parks bureau has a scholarship for community gardeners available, a lot choose not to apply for it, Ost says.

Putting the burden on low-income neighbors to submit their financial information and apply for the scholarship "is something kind of unpleasant, mean-spirited," she says.

She and other neighbors ask why the fees can't be instituted on a sliding scale, or why the city can't apply for grants to help support the gardens.

Niemi says the garden program does have shorter waiting lists in North Portland, especially St. Johns and Portsmouth. In other parts of the city there are long waiting lists, with little turnover.

All community gardeners are required to volunteer six hours per year to care for the site, and many put in much more, Niemi says.

Last year gardeners at all 52 sites logged 16,000 volunteers hours, the equivalent of eight full-time staff the parks bureau doesn't need to hire to maintain the sites.

Parks officials stress that this is only the start of the budget process for the next fiscal year, part of an overall effort to increase gross revenue by about $111,000 and part of the $2.9 million in bureau cuts mandated by the mayor.

"We received 827 online comments regarding this proposal, via the online survey which closed this morning, and 64 testimonials at last night’s public meeting," Mark Ross, parks spokesman, said Wednesday.

"Of those, there were a range of opinions; many were against the idea ... and some people thought the proposal was completely reasonable."

Ross said there were also 40 emails opposing the proposal, which were sent to Parks Director Mike Abbaté and garden staff, and all were answered.

Other programs identified

The community gardens package is just one of 19 items on the initial list of parks reductions, including some sacred cows that recur year after year early in the budget process.

Some of the more dramatic proposals include:

• Cutting aquatic services including closing Buckman Pool permanently, closing Columbia Pool on Sundays, reducing play swims from seven days to four days per week, and implementing midday closures at three other sites to save $260,000.

• Eliminating the Movies in the Park and Concerts in the Park programs, including the Washington Park Summer Festival, as well as the summer playground programs not affiliated with the summer lunch or East mobile recreation program, to save $185,000.

• Cutting the SUN Community School program by two sites — Mt. Tabor and Beaumont — to save $210,000.

• Shutting off access to 18 fountains, 11 of them interactive parts of summer recreation and cooling opportunities, to save $570,000.

• Increasing daily parking fees at the Block J parking lot to generate $100,000 in revenue.

• Eliminating the Dutch Elm Disease treatment program by shifting responsibility onto adjacent property owners, to save $185,000.

• Reducing the general fund's share of parks maintenance from $1.5 million to $1 million annually, to save $500,000.

• Eliminating or reducing the Teen Force program at Mt. Scott Community Center to save $100,000.

• No longer planting or maintaining 300 container gardens in the downtown corridor, to save $110,000.

To see the full list of proposed cuts: portlandoregon.gov/parks/article/559446.

The public is invited to send comments and testify at the open house set for 5:30-8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 14 at a meeting of the Bureau Advisory Committee in the Portland Building, 1120 S.W. Fifth Ave., second floor Conference Room C.

The mayor will propose his budget later this spring, after which the City Council will adopt the final budget.

@jenmomanderson