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Portland, Or: Public gardens are not on firm ground in budget

  • Subject: [cg] Portland, Or: Public gardens are not on firm ground in budget
  • From: Adam36055@aol.com
  • Date: Thu, 10 Mar 2005 14:24:56 EST

Public gardens are not on firm ground in budget 
Portland's Parks Bureau would like the program to be self-sufficient, but 
gardeners say they need public support to survive 
Thursday, March 10, 2005
The Oregonian 
From her corner office on the 13th floor of The Portland Building, Parks 
Bureau director Zary Santner sees a sweeping view of north and east Portland -- 
and a way for the city's public gardeners to enjoy their pastime without 
long-term financial help from taxpayers. 

From his rented plots at the Brentwood Community Garden in Southeast 
Portland, gardener William Cepurna sees a cell phone tower, an unassuming middle-class 
neighborhood -- and sure death for the program without further taxpayer help. 

"I just don't see how you can say we will survive," he said. "I just don't 
know how you can really make that statement." 

Although the garden program accounts for less than 1 percent of the Portland 
Bureau of Parks & Recreation budget, it has become the cause celebre of this 
year's spending debate, and a prime example of the challenges facing city 
leaders and their constituents. 

Santner needs to cut costs. For next year's budget, the Portland City Council 
is looking to trim $8 million from the general fund -- the $300 million pot 
that is used to pay for basic services -- and the city's parks are competing 
for that money against the police and fire bureaus, among others. 

Beyond the $8 million, more trims are coming. The city is currently operating 
in the black, but economists predict Portland may need to cut as much as $19 
million over the next five years. Revenues are rising, but costs are rising 

For her part, Santner proposes phasing out city funding for smaller programs 
and facilities that are relatively costly to run, attract relatively few users 
or seem as if they could win private support. Among the facilities that could 
lose city funding under the proposal are the Pittock Mansion, the Multnomah 
Arts Center, Camp Ky-o-wa near Sandy and the Hillside, Sellwood and Fulton 
community centers. Taken separately, each amounts to a tiny percentage of the 
Parks Bureau's annual budget. But as a whole, they offer hundreds of thousands of 
dollars in potential savings, and a chance to refocus the department on 
services that pay for themselves or can survive through partnerships with the 
private sector. 

Santner bristles at the suggestion that she's recommending killing any 
program. Rather, she says the city needs to work with participants to find other 
sources of money and management. 

"The well is drying up, and we have got to be very, very innovative in how we 
continue to provide services," she said. "But the question is not eliminating 
services. It's 'How can we continue the services by doing them differently?' 

30 years old 

Portland's Community Gardens program celebrates its 30th anniversary this 
year. Today, 2,800 people garden at about 980 plots across the city, according to 
the Parks Bureau. The city spends about $115,000 annually providing gardeners 
with water, compost, basic maintenance, garbage pickup and one full-time 
staff position to help set up educational programs and manage plot rentals. The 
city, which self-insures, also covers insurance costs on the gardens. 

The Parks Bureau charges $45 a year rent on a 20-by-20-foot piece of land, 
$23 for a 10-by-20-foot plot and $15 for a 4-by-8-foot bed. To cover costs, the 
city would need to charge at least $115 for the largest plots, according to 
the bureau's proposed budget. 

"I'm afraid that cities are increasingly turning their backs on community 
gardens, but Portland has been one of the models for a long time," said Betsy 
Johnson, executive director of the American Community Gardening Association, 
based in New York. 

The city could keep raising rents to make the gardens self-sufficient. But 
that would price out many gardeners, Santner says. Instead, she's recommending 
giving the gardens another year of money and city assistance to either find 
private benefactors or form volunteer-led nonprofits to oversee the gardens. And 
she's open to the possibility of continuing city support beyond next year if 

"It's not like we're going to walk away after one year and let them loose," 
Santner said. "We'll continue to help until they're able to do everything. We 
will make sure they succeed, and we want to work with them to make sure they 

Gardners say they need aid 

Cepurna and other gardeners say they don't see another way for the program to 
survive outside of city support. There's too much work involved in managing 
the gardens for volunteers to handle it all and some of the costs -- most 
notably insurance at the gardens -- could be substantially higher for a private 
group than city government. 

So far, Community Gardens activists haven't wanted or needed to work with the 
Parks Bureau on alternatives to city funding. Instead, they've been working 
with City Hall. 

City commissioners say they've been flooded with e-mails from gardeners and 
garden supporters. Gardeners have delivered produce to Commissioner Dan 
Saltzman and packed budget hearings. They've inspired Commissioner Randy Leonard to 
say, repeatedly, that he's committed to protecting the gardens. "They're off 
the table," he said this week. "Off. The. Table." 

"Community gardeners are sort of hobby farmers, and farmers aren't going to 
roll over without a fight," said Will Levenson, a gardener active in Friends of 
Portland Community Gardens, a nonprofit. The group has encouraged its members 
to fight the proposed cut by traditional means, say writing letters to 
Santner and Mayor Tom Potter -- "Be candid. Be direct. Be persuasive. Be real. Write 
again and again," goes the advice on the nonprofit's Web site -- and less 
traditional ones, such as taping love letters about gardening to Community 
Gardens fences. 

Despite the effort, Santner is sticking by her recommendation. She says this 
is a debate the city is going to keep having as budget problems extend into 
future years. But the Parks Bureau will remain a likely target for cuts, and 
that means programs such as Community Gardens will remain vulnerable. 

Santner wants to shift the discussion. "We are not eliminating these 
services. We are not selling properties. We believe the Community Gardens are very, 
very important, and we are committed to making sure that people still have plots 
to garden in," she said. "But some programs offer us opportunities to look at 
continuing services differently. Community Gardens is one of those." 

Anna Griffin: 503-294-5988; annagriffin@news.oregonian.com 

The American Community Gardening Association listserve is only one of ACGA's services to community gardeners. To learn more about the ACGA and to find out how to join, please go to http://www.communitygarden.org

To post an e-mail to the list:  community_garden@mallorn.com

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