Friday, May 29, 2009

Fee proposal for San Francisco Botancal Gardens (Arboretum) -- second public meeting

I went to the second meeting last night.

Someone videotaped the first ten minutes:

There are good photos and descriptions on the San Francisco Citizen blog.

I got there a few minutes late, and when I walked in, there was a lot of shouting going on. (This was at about the 1:00 minute point on the video above.) (Editing to add -- I found out later that what happened was that the TPTB originally tried to break the attendees up into smaller groups, in a "workshop" format. People who have been involved in SF politics for a while believe that "workshops" are a standard way for officials to give the appearance of allowing a public hearing without actually paying any attention to what the public has to say. Thus, the angry insistence on the attendees not being divided up.) Jim Lazarus, who is on the Parks Commission, took over as moderator, and did a great job of keeping the discussion on track.

But I don't think I came out of the meeting knowing much more than I did when I came in.

Botanical Gardens director Brent Dennis said that in a survey they did a couple of years ago, before the Academy of Sciences reopened (which presumably has increased the number of people visiting the Gardens), there were 400,000 visitors per year.

Half of those were San Francisco residents (a number that seems low to me).

If they implement the fee, then ticketing staff will cost about $148,000 per year (that also sounds low).

He said that would generate about $400,000 total, with $100,000 to $150,000 going to Park & Rec and the rest going to Arboretum improvements.

Several people asked what, exactly, the budget shortfall is for the Arboretum, and how much money would be needed to maintain the Gardens the way it is now. Those were key questions, IMO. Lazarus wasn't giving direct answers, and eventually he said that they couldn't answer those questions now, because it will depend on what the shortfall will be for parks budget overall, and what part of that budget will go to the Arboretum.

Apparently, it's not proportional. A decrease of X% for the parks overall wouldn't necessarily mean an X% decrease for the Arboretum. The Arboretum seems to have some sort of protected status, having far more gardeners for its size than other park sites, and being able to hold onto them longer.

This all seemed so vague. No one really knows how much money the Gardens needs to keep up the status quo for the long term or even for the short term -- the officials just say that what they have isn't enough. And there was still some mushing together, though less so than in the last meeting, of the ideas of maintaining the gardens as they are now versus building them into a world-class "museum."

It's not at all clear how much of the new funds would be going to one objective rather than the other, and I still think the timing of this raises questions. Are TPTB at the Gardens pointing to the budget crisis as a way not only to plug up any budgetary holes, but also as an opportunity to get extra funds to make some long-desired upgrades? (In a 2007 article, Director Dennis was quoted as saying that he wanted to give the Gardens "a higher profile.")

A woman from the public suggested having an open-air cafe inside the Gardens as a way of raising funds, which I thought was a great idea, and a quick vote by show of hands showed a lot of agreement. Someone else (Lazarus?) suggested having people (volunteers?) hand visitors maps as they walk in and ask them for voluntary payment -- but without having the gates, cashiers, ID cards, and mandatory fees. The vote on that was split.

Here's another three minutes of the meeting:

On June 18, there will be a public meeting of the Parks Commission at 4:00 on the 4th Floor of City Hall.

To get involved:

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