DENVER — The Denver auditor said the city isn't doing enough to keep its parks clean and safe, according to a new report.
The audit was released Thursday afternoon and examines how Denver's Department of Parks and Recreation uses taxpayer dollars on parks. In 2018, Denver voters approved a 0.25% sales tax to support parks, trails and open spaces. The city's Parks Legacy Fund restricts this new revenue to maintaining current and new parks and acquiring additional land for future parks.
Denver Auditor Timothy M. O’Brien, CPA, said the department isn't sufficiently informing the public about when and how the city uses that money.
The audit team visited 10 parks, two dog parks, a park restroom and two properties that were recently acquired using the legacy fund. Using the department's own evaluation criteria, 37.5% of the parks passed and 62.5% did not.
For example, Civic Center Park scored a 29% due to trash, debris, graffiti, vandalism, standing water, missing mulch rings and trees obstructing walkways, according to the report. The Greenway Dog Park scored 14%, with a trench of putrid water, unhealthy trees, weeds and more. City Park also failed, with electrical wires tied to a tree and hung across a walkway.
“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.”
The audit report noted COVID-19's impact on the department, which had to lay off more than 1,000 part-time employees, reduce seasonal staff by 55% and furlough about 75 employees. As a result, the department estimated it had about 100,000 fewer hours staffed for park maintenance.
“Both the long-term and short-term health of the parks system are imperative,” 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.”
In addition, the audit found that communication to the public about the Parks Legacy Fund revenue was lacking and of the 42 projects the audit team reviewed, 32 are using the funds and only three of those contained communication related to the fund.
O'Brien said the department could use its website, social media accounts or signs in the parks to fix this.
“The people of Denver have told me they want to know when the tax dollars they voted to approve are used,” O’Brien said. “Showing how the money is making a difference could help people see the value and impact in the community.”
Leaders of the Department of Parks and Recreation agreed with the recommendations outlined in the audit, which include:
- Revise administrative cost policy and procedures to reflect how administrative costs should be calculated
- Develop and implement a policy and procedure for ensuring the annual report related to legacy fund use is distributed according to city ordinance
- Conduct and document an analysis of its existing communication plan to better inform public
- After the above step, revise and implement the communication policy to include changes identified in the analysis and to enhance communication with the public, specifically about legacy funded projects
- Develop plans for succession and contingency planning, as it relates to the administration of the Legacy Fund, to ensure the department can continue achieving its objectives when staffing changes occur
- Conduct and document a formal needs assessment "to determine how to ensure parks are maintained properly and park hazards are quickly identified and corrected."
- Conduct a workforce analysis to determine staffing needs to maintain existing assets while still planning for park system growth
- Identify a single evaluation form and train staff to do site evaluations to ensure all parks are scored using the same standards
- Formalize the definition of supplanting as it relates to the Park Legacy Funds ordinance
While the department agreed to each recommendation, O'Brien said he remains concerned about their commitment to making the changes, noting that the agreements seemed "half-hearted."
Click here to read the details of the audit and the Department of Parks and Recreation's full response.