Parks Department, Libraries Present Budget Priorities to City Council

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Pittman-Sullivan Park.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Pittman-Sullivan Park in the Denver Heights neighborhood is part of 29,692 acres of parkland in San Antonio.

The directors of the Parks and Recreation Department and the San Antonio Public Library system said the proposed budgets for their respective departments will reflect efforts to achieve the City's goals of social equity.

City Council on Wednesday was briefed on those proposed fiscal year 2018 budgets, as well as the budget for the municipal court system. The Council is holding a series of work sessions with each City department ahead of final adoption of the entire budget in September.

Parks and recreation budget previewed

Parks and Recreation Director Xavier Urrutia said the City continues to improve access to public parks, recreational facilities, greenspaces and trails citywide.

The department's proposed $100.4 million budget covers all funds, representing a $1.8 million increase from fiscal year 2017.

About 65% of the department's general fund – a proposed $50.9 million for 2018 – would address operations and maintenance. The department plans to add five positions in the next year.

There's a lot of park land to cover. Urrutia said the Trust for Public Land recently surveyed parks in San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas, and found that San Antonio has the second largest area of park space within city limits among these three Texas cities with 29,692 acres.

Houston has 53,134 acres, and Dallas has 27,038. In 1999, San Antonio had just 7,565 park acres.

"I think that's a success story," said Mayor Ron Nirenberg. "We've tripled our park space while other cities are reducing theirs. I think we should be talking more about that."

Nirenberg suggested, however, that the City concentrate on enhancing neighborhood and pocket parks rather than on what Urrutia called a more regional park approach, which the City has focused on in recent years.

Parks and Recreation plans on allocating $3 million to deferred maintenance for more than one dozen parks, pools, and community centers in 2018, mostly on the City's East, West, and South sides.

The department is also working to close the local digital divide, Urrutia said, with the recent introduction of free WiFi connectivity at Pearsall, Palm Heights, Friedrich, Harlandale, Woodlawn Lake, Pittman-Sullivan, and Walker Ranch parks. WiFi is scheduled to be added at Cuellar, Lady Bird Johnson, and San Pedro Springs parks. WiFi also is available in and around the classroom structures at Hardberger Park, as well as 12 community centers.

The Explore SA online registration system has made it easier to reserve a facility or register for a class, Urrutia said, and has resulted in a 40% drop in walk-in traffic at the Parks and Recreation's office at City Hall.

Under the Linear Creekway Parks Development Program, which provides sales tax funding for land purchases and trail development, the City has built 65 miles of greenway trails. Another 27 miles are in design or under construction.

More City sales tax revenue has enabled the City to acquire 147,782 acres of Edwards Aquifer recharge zone land for protection. The City plans to acquire an additional 5,000 acres in FY 2018.

Parks and Recreation has proposed a $200,000 increase in its tree fund budget for tree canopy preservation and mitigation, from $2.3 million to $2.5 million. The department has $610,000 invested in current preservation and mitigation programs, such as Under 1 Roof, oak wilt prevention, and tree plantings and adoptions. More than 76,000 trees have been planted by the City or adopted by residents citywide since 2006.

There would be $1.4 million budgeted for new tree programs. In one program, City officials would ask neighborhoods if they want to grow their tree canopy. Another program would expand plantings in City park areas.

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said it's important to continue "putting trees in neighborhoods that have a real heat island impact," especially in inner-city communities.

Parks and Recreation is also planning seven public workshops concerning the City's parks system plan. The first workshop is scheduled for 6-8 p.m. Oct. 12 at the Central Library.

Library budget revealed

The Schaefer Branch Library holds many books and colorful reading places.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

The Schaefer Branch Library on the city's Eastside.

San Antonio Public Library Director Ramiro Salazar said his department is working to achieve social equity through expanding educational and learning opportunities, supporting workforce development, fostering community connections, and closing the digital divide.

The library system's website was revamped for easier use on mobile devices. The website received 3 million visits in fiscal year 2016.

The City is now working to integrate technologies to enhance the library system's efficiencies, and to improve customer experience.

Library branches provide a vital link for people needing computer access or WiFi connectivity simply to apply for jobs, do homework, or get information on basic services, Salazar said.

A total of 30 library branches accounted for 2.4 million hours in desktop and laptop computer use in FY 2016. But it's also critical for libraries to provide opportunities for constituents to learn how to use computers and the internet, Salazar said.

"Having access to the internet isn't enough," he said. "It's about having the knowledge and tools to navigate it."

Even with the increase in digital tools provided by the library system, many people continue to visit libraries to access materials in person, Salazar said. The library system in total recorded 5.3 million annual visits by FY 2016. In the same year, 7.3 million items were borrowed, and more than 350,000 people attended programs, classes, and special events across all branches.

Salazar said the library system added value to its variety of resources, such as the Latino Collection and Resource Center, which has been relocated from the sixth to a prominent first floor area of the Central Library. A grand opening ceremony to celebrate the center's move will take place at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 19.

Through partnerships and initiatives over the years, City libraries have become sites for job fairs, Council field offices, community services, and places where people can learn about things like coding, Salazar said.

Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) said he appreciates how a library can be different things to different people, depending on a specific community's needs.

"I want to make sure we use every square foot of library space to maximize potential," he said.

In order to support this rising demand for library services, Salazar's department proposes a $40.4 million general fund budget, an increase from $39.8 million in FY 2017.

"You're able to see the evolution of a city by the state of its libraries," Nirenberg said.

The mayor asked whether library branches could be used as sites for residents to watch City Council meetings remotely. Salazar replied that "there's a lot of opportunity" to help residents to not only watch a Council meeting at a library branch, but perhaps interact with meeting participants in real time.

Municipal court budget presented

Presiding Judge John Bull briefed the Council on the proposed $15.11 million total budget for court operations. This would be an increase from $13.63 million total in 2017.

Bull said he and his colleagues are particularly proud of how the City's court system has become a model nationwide for helping to fight truancy, and helping people resolve outstanding fines without the fear of being sent to jail.

The court worked with local school districts to develop truancy prevention efforts that address the root causes of excessive school absences. Bull said it was key for schools to understand that most chronically absent children are caught in circumstances, such as gang affiliation or problems at home, that are out of their control.

"We were in a bad spot on truancy," Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) said, describing how things were a few years ago. "We've not moved completely from penalizing the most vulnerable and indigent in our community to being more comprehensive."

Final open houses focusing on the City's proposed 2018 budget will be held from Saturday, Aug., 26, from 9 a.m.-noon at Pearsall Park, and Monday, Aug. 28, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the Garza Community Center.

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