When theyre good, a citys parks provide a tangible return on a taxpayers dollar. Especially during a recession, parks offer free entertainment and a healthy escape.
But park services are among the first casualties when a citys budget needs trimming. The 2009 budget for the Parks and Recreation Department is $53,214,539 about $3 million less than last years. The department has shed 95 full-time positions since 2008; its staff has shrunk from 746 full-time employees in 2000 to 359 today.
Visitors to KC parks have often found crumbling infrastructure and ragged maintenance. More than a third (35 percent) of respondents to 2008s citizen-satisfaction survey reported that they had seldom to never set foot in a city park during the previous year. According to City Auditor Gary Whites report, fewer than half of the respondents (48 percent) reported satisfaction with the overall quality of city parks, recreation programs and facilities.
Lack of funding is part of the problem; lack of community engagement is another. But a handful of the citys parks has improved, thanks to a few citizens who believe that if you want better service, you have to ask for it. Sometimes its just a matter of speaking up. Other times, you have to raise a little hell.
The Mom: Roxana Shaffe
Roxana Shaffe says Gillham Park in the 1990s was a sand pit littered with broken bottles and used condoms. She was a new renter near the park, but friends who grew up in the neighborhood told her that it hadn't always been that way. Shaffe and her husband, Rob Menteer, bought a house near Gillham Park in 2002 and had the first of their three children the following year. Menteer participated in the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association, where he and Shaffe learned that past efforts to improve the park, which runs along both sides of Gillham Road from 39th Street to Brush Creek Boulevard, had hit a wall.
By 2005, Shaffe had become accustomed to avoiding Gillham Park. She would pass it on her way to Loose Park, wondering why she should have to drive her kids three miles to find safe, modern playground equipment when a perfectly good but neglected park was just steps from her home.
It occurred to Shaffe that the staff of Kansas City's Parks and Recreation Department might be unaware that a new generation of families raising young children now lived by the park. "We don't just get a good park because we deserve one," she says she told a group of mothers once, when conversation turned to the park's decrepit condition.
A similar discussion with her husband prompted him to ask, "Why don't you go do something about it?" So Shaffe, who describes herself as a lifetime loudmouth, began researching the process for requesting a new playground in Gillham Park. Friends advised her of the unspoken first rule of doing business with the mayor-appointed commissioners of Kansas City's Board of Parks and Recreation: "Whoever is in their face is who gets things done," she says.
Shaffe made it her full-time job to get in the board's face. But first, she needed funding. The Parks and Recreation commissioners usually advise citizens to try to score Public Improvement Advisory Committee dollars from the city for capital improvements like new playgrounds before coming before their board. So Shaffe and a neighbor, Stacey Roste, began attending 4th District PIAC meetings in 2005. They sat in the back and watched the tactics of other groups whose requests earned approval. They learned that they needed to form an official committee and prove they were involved in park stewardship and their community. They became the Friends of Gillham Park.