Denver Should Use New Tax Revenue for Better Maintenance of Parks
Published on October 21, 2021
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DENVER – Denver isn’t doing enough to keep its parks clean and safe, even as it buys new parkland using voter-approved tax dollars, according to a new audit from Denver Auditor Timothy M. O’Brien, CPA. The Department of Parks and Recreation also isn’t sufficiently letting the public know when the city uses the designated tax dollars.
“When the public sees graffiti, human waste, drug paraphernalia, and unsafe conditions at parks, it’s reasonable for them to wonder where those tax dollars they approved went,” Auditor O’Brien said. “The city has millions to spend but a lot of work to do before the parks are in the condition expected by anyone who cares about our city.”
In 2018, Denver voters approved a 0.25% sales and use tax increase — known as the Parks Legacy Fund — to support purchasing and maintaining parks, trails and open space. Our team examined how the city has used those dollars and how department staff have communicated that work back to the voters.
We found that while the department decided to expand the parks system on several occasions — creating a need for even more staffing and maintenance — preexisting parks are not up to established standards for maintenance, safety, and cleanliness.
Our audit team visited several parks to evaluate them based on Parks and Recreation’s established maintenance standards and found graffiti, conditions hazardous to humans and animals, exposed electrical wires, human waste, drug paraphernalia and needles, and deep holes.
Civic Center Park, City Park, Confluence Park, Harvey Park, Joseph P. Martinez Park, Overland Pond Park, Rocky Mountain Lake Park, Thomas Ernest McClain Park, Greenway Dog Park, and Montbello Central Park all failed our auditors’ on-site evaluations in June 2021. You can see the results of our evaluations and how each park did in Appendix C of the report.
Parks and Recreation’s operations were significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the department closed facilities, reduced park maintenance schedules, laid off more than 1,000 part-time employees, reduced seasonal staff by 55%, and furloughed 74 full-time employees. Additionally, some Parks and Recreation staff were redeployed for tasks including COVID-19 testing, supporting vaccination sites, and helping at shelters.
Parks and Recreation estimates it had 100,000 fewer hours staffed for park maintenance tasks like mowing, trimming, litter pick-up, and trash removal.
However, we found Parks and Recreation earmarked millions of dollars even before the pandemic for purchasing new land that went unused. Even according to the department’s own evaluations, several preexisting parks do not have a passing grade. As a result, it’s possible the department is neglecting preexisting park assets in favor of making plans to buy more land.
“Both the long-term and short-term health of the parks system are imperative,” Auditor O’Brien said. “Buying new land to give more people access is important, but so is keeping the parks we have clean and safe so they will last for all future generations.”
City ordinance designates both land acquisition and park maintenance as approved uses of the voter-approved tax revenue; however, it does not specify how the total Parks Legacy Fund budget should be divided between those priorities
We found Parks and Recreation is acquiring new park assets with Parks Legacy Fund dollars while not ensuring preexisting facilities are sufficiently maintained and hazards are quickly identified and corrected.
“Maintenance and adequate staffing of parks will protect park users today and in the future,” Auditor O’Brien said.
We also found that although Parks Legacy Fund revenue is used in projects in dozens of parks, the department is not doing enough to make sure the public knows how it uses the legacy funds. Of the 42 projects our team reviewed, 32 are receiving or have received legacy funds. Of these, only three contained communication related to the legacy fund.
The department could use its website and social media to ensure anyone who is interested in Denver’s parks knows how the relatively new revenue source is used. Parks and Recreation could also use on-site signs to show park users that the taxes are making a difference.
For example, Elevate Denver Bond projects and the state’s Great Outdoors Colorado lottery grants include signs at parks to show were the money went.
Without effective communication, Parks and Recreation is not informing the public of how their tax dollars are spent, which may decrease the voters’ trust in city government and the parks department. This could also decrease the chances of success for future ballot measures.
“The people of Denver have told me they want to know when the tax dollars they voted to approve are used,” Auditor O’Brien said. “Showing how the money is making a difference could help people see the value and impact in the community.”
Other areas of concern our team identified include ensuring Parks and Recreation is adhering to the requirements of the ordinance through specific guidelines for administrative costs and distribution of its annual report. The department also needs to preserve institutional knowledge related to the Parks Legacy Fund through succession planning. And management needs to clarify the definition of “supplanting” to ensure legacy funds are used appropriately and as intended.
Although leaders of the Department of Parks and Recreation agreed with all our recommendations, we remained concerned about their commitment to implementing all aspects of those recommendations. For example, department managers agreed to our recommendation to conduct a needs assessment to determine maintenance and staffing needs, but they then said they would continue with their currently unsuccessful annual maintenance assessment program.
“These agreements seem half-hearted,” Auditor O’Brien said. “I hope our recommendations will be fully implemented for the good of the parks we all love to share.”
See more descriptions and pictures of park conditions in Appendix E of our report.
AUDITOR TIMOTHY O'BRIEN, CPA
Denver Auditor's Office
201 W. Colfax Ave. #705 Denver, CO 80202
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