Strybing_Arboretum.jpgArboretum’s Library Put on Half-Time After Society Begins Collecting $7 Fee

Everybody needs money, and the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society is no exception. Though even with that more money on the way, the Society couldn’t avoid cutbacks to public services.

The nonprofit organization — which, through a combination of private philanthropy and public tax dollars, has funded and managed operations at the San Francisco Botanical Gardens at Strybing Arboretum in Golden Gate Park for 55 years – convinced city supervisors this spring to approve a $7 entrance fee at the previously-always-gratuit 55-acre gardens, for non-San Francisco residents only.

The $7 fee could raise as much as $650,000 per year, according to a Recreational and Park Department estimate, though it required an up-front investment of $70,000 to construct a ticketing kiosk and implement a point-of-sales system. That fee money – on top of the $3.2 million annual Society budget, with $1.8 million coming from private donors, and the rest from the city’s general fund — would be the Society’s to spend as it sees fit.

That’s on top of the $4,200 a month the Society receives from Recreation and Park, money to be spent specifically on outreach and community programs like running garden’s library, the Helen Crocker Russell Library.

However, beginning today, the library’s hours are reduced from seven days a week to six hours a day, four days a week, according to a letter from Michael McKechnie, the executive director of the Society. And it could have been much worse, he wrote.

All staff members will take one furlough day per month, and all staff members have agreed to contribute money from their “individual budgets” (one assumes he means paychecks) towards keeping the library open four days instead of three, McKechnie wrote.

“Youth Education, Plant Collections, Development and, most visibly, the Library will experience staff reductions or budget cuts,” he wrote. “There are no winners in this temporary financial stabilization.”

The timing of the cuts — coming soon after the Society began collecting the $7 a head fee for out-of-towners in early August — led Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi to question the Society’s transparency.

Supervisors were led to believe that the Society was on solid financial footing, Mirkarimi told the Appeal, and that the nonresident fee was being introduced as a way to avoid exactly such cuts.

“That they’d be cutting back staffing and hours at the library does not coincide with our limited knowledge that money was in their possession and that they were well off,” said Mirkarimi, a member of the Botanical Garden Society who nonetheless voted against the nonresident fee as a member of the Board.

“It doesn’t really jive with the whole request [to impose a nonresident fee], that paying to access the Botanical Gardens was a way to save money,” he added. “It doesn’t jive with that at all.”

A spokesman for the Recreation and Park Department did not respond to requests for comment.

Reached via e-mail, McKechnie said that it’s the private donors, not the city grant money or the nonresident fee, that makes or breaks the Botanical Gardens’s finances. And with the economy squarely in the shitter, where it’s been for years, the Society had no choice but to make cuts.

“The Society is almost completely dependent on charitable donations for its operations,” he wrote. “The grant from the Recreation and Park Department is welcome and helpful but by no means closes the gap for managing our youth education, library, curatorial, and other such services.”

McKechnie did note that as a nonprofit, the Society submits detailed financial records, Form 990s, all of which are available online.

That said, the Society spent $10,000 a month on public relations consultants ahead of the fee debate, a move blasted by critics who worked to keep the Arboretum admissions free.

Would that money have been better spent on preserving services? A group of Society critics, organized online as Keep The Arboretum Free, note that not only has the fee not staved off cuts, the Botanical Gardens will be closed on all major holidays this year, a first.

Wrote one critic, “Our progressive supervisors have sold us out.”

*As usual.

Photo: Photo of redwood trail in Strybing Arboretum, San Francisco, taken July 2004 by Wikipedia User Stan Shebs

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