The Parks Committee met yesterday to address the question of inequality amongst the city’s parks, and the City Hall audience was treated to the sight of Councilmember Brad Lander ridiculing Senator Dan Squadron’s proposal to tax the city’s richer parks to help their poorer brethren.
Park funding inequity was a major feature of the Public Advocate campaign last year, when Squadron proposed, and Bill de Blasio supported, levying a 20% tax on all park conservancies that have operating budgets above $5 million. The proceeds of this tax would then be distributed to the rest of the city’s parks through a “Neighborhood Parks Alliance.” Squadron’s bill sits in the Senate Committee on Cities, where Chair and former Councilmember Andrew Lanza of Staten Island is making sure it rests comfortably.
When Squadron first announced his bill, large parks conservancies naturally were aghast at the idea that they would suffer, effectively, a 20% cut to their budgets. Even while the Central Park Conservancy is figuring out how to spend the $100 million it got in 2012 from hedge fund billionaire John Paulson, regular parks around the city make do with whatever their local councilmembers scrounge up in capital funding on a year-by-year basis.
Yesterday’s Parks hearing, chaired by CM Mark Levine, started out with thunderous rhetoric about the stark inequity between the rich parks and the poor parks, directed at Deputy Commissioner Liam Kavanagh. Demanding to know why certain richer neighborhoods make the most 311 parks-related calls, Levine appeared to be setting the stage for a classic de Blasio-style “tale of two cities” confrontation.
Yet when Senator Squadron stepped up to discuss his bill, the tone changed, became practically soporific. A number of councilmembers quietly left, including Ruben Wills and Darlene Mealy. Chair Levine said a few words about how the hearing was a general discussion about inequality, and wasn’t addressing any bill in particular.
Then CM Lander, who isn’t even on the Parks Committee, yet who was allowed to speak ahead of committee members, began slicing into Squadron’s proposal. “Why not 50%?” he asked, deadpan. Why let the richer parks keep any of their money? Squadron fumbled for answers while Lander, channeling his inner Milton Friedman, mocked the revenue-sharing proposal as something that would result in “more equitability, and fewer resources,” as donors stop contributing to their favorite parks.
Squadron, alone at the witness desk, was then essentially dismissed and replaced by representatives of the white-shoe conservancies, who explained that they were more than happy to extend professional courtesy to the city’s poorer parks by way of all forms of assistance short of financial. Noblesse oblige, naturally.
Brad Lander, of course, is an ex-officio member of the Prospect Park Alliance, which is one of the conservancies that would take a hit from the passage of Squadron’s bill. He is also the recipient of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from major donors to Prospect Park, including members of its board of directors. For example, Steve Hindy, the CEO of Brooklyn Brewery, which gave the PPA between $10,000 and $25,000, personally contributed $1,300 to Lander’s 2013 run, and bundled an additional $10,300 for Lander as an intermediate: most of that money came from other PPA donors. Libby Ryan, a prominent real estate agent in “brownstone Brooklyn” and a Prospect Park donor in the 5-digit range, gave Lander $1,000 towards his re-election.
Clearly CM Lander’s fellow PPA board members wouldn’t want to see their donations diluted by a 20% luxury tax, nor should they. Prospect Park is an enormous, beautiful park that legitimately serves more of the city than just its immediate neighbors, and Squadron’s bill would surely have a chilling effect on large contributions to the city’s biggest parks.
Brad Lander’s performance wasn’t just about Prospect Park, however, even though he clearly has a strong interest in maintaining the status quo regarding financing. Lander was flexing his muscle as a shadow Speaker--the one who pulls the strings. Consider the fact that, like Sheldon Silver, Brad Lander sits on precisely one committee: Rules, which he chairs. Lander's willingness to ridicule the type of progressive legislation that he would normally favor indicates his confidence in his own power, which is crescent.