burningmoney.jpgInefficiency, Privatization Subject of Marathon Hearing (and we’re not done yet)

Since non-residents were first charged $7 to enter the Botanical Gardens, the cash-strapped Recreation and Park Department has received $355,000 in revenue — nearly 2/3 of which was spent to collect the fee, officials said during a City Hall hearing Wednesday.

The administrative costs mean the Recreation and Park Department only collects 41 cents for every dollar paid by non-residents entering the Botanical Gardens. At least some of these costs — building and staffing ticket kiosks, erecting a fence around the Strybing Aboretum — will be covered by the private San Francisco Botanical Garden Society, Recreation and Park General Manager Phil Ginsburg told a Board of Supervisors committee hearing.

The fee is nonetheless “very costly” to administer, according to a Budget Analyst report, and more expensive than other similar fees charged at urban parks around the country.

The Botanical Gardens are free for San Francisco residents but out of town adults must pay $7. Rec and Park began collecting the fees in August 2010. A number of progressive supervisors, including Supervisor John Avalos, have been critical of the fee, which some call a giveaway or a privatization of the Botanical Gardens led by the Botanical Garden Society, a nonprofit comprised largely of wealthy donors.

Avalos has introduced legislation that would rescind the fee; Mayor Edwin Lee has introduced competing legislation that would make the fee permanent. Rec and Park, which has laid off many of its recreation directors and shuttered many of its recreation centers in local parks in recent years, says the fee is a necessary evil.

“It gives us no joy to charge people for anything,” Ginsburg said, “but if it’s a choice of keeping parks open for children and families in Chinatown, South of Market and the Tenderloin or charging tourists from Atherton or Lafayette to visit a museum quality park, the choice is clear.”

Critics of the fee like Avalos noted that attendance has dropped significantly since the fee was introduced, and attendance has been well below department projections.

Rec and Park promised $650,000 in fee revenue for the current fiscal year but has taken in only $355,000, in part because of inclement weather, Ginsburg said. Some 57,000 people have visited the Botanical Gardens since August, according to Rec and Park figures.

Attendance and revenue were both below Rec and Park projections, Ginsburg admitted, but an “aggressive marketing campaign” means those figures should go up in the coming fiscal year, Ginsburg said. The Rec and Park Department’s projections for revenue and attendance are “optimistic,” according to the Budget Analyst, which projected the fee would net $337,219 in revenue for fiscal year 2011-2012.

Revoking the fee would mean the Rec and Park Department would need $143,445 in general fund money to balance its budget. The SF Botanical Garden Society has “verbally pledged” to contributed at least $104,000 to cover the administrative costs of collecting the fee. If the fee is rescinded, the SFBGS will withdraw its offer.

The SFBGS has been criticized in the past for hiring a public relations firm to promote the fee. The SFBGS has paid $7,500 a month in public relations costs. It’s also not clear who will be conducting the Botanical Gardens’ “aggressive marketing campaign.”

“We’re asking [the Botanical Garden Society] to furnish us with those financials,” said Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, himself a SFBGS member. “It’s a little frustrating that [supervisors] and the Budget Analyst does not have that data.”

Both the measure to revoke the fee and to keep the fee permanent were advanced to the full Board of Supervisors. Six supes will be needed to revoke the fee; it is unclear who would support a fee revocation other than Avalos, Mirkarimi and progressive comrade David Campos. Board president David Chiu and Supervisor Scott Wiener joined Budget and Finance Chair Carmen Chu in voicing support for the fee.

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