After four years of austerity, the tide may finally be turning for San Mateo County’s park system.
In early May, the county Board of Supervisors approved seven new positions to fill a leadership void and handle a mounting set of responsibilities. Revenues generated from San Mateo County’s new Measure A sales tax should add millions to the coffers of the county Parks Department, which will help pay for the added personnel. Interim Director Jim Nantell says he’s cautiously optimistic.
“The good news for us is the voters in this county approved Measure A,” he said, adding that the newly beefed-up staff should be enough to maintain a crumbling stretch of road that San Mateo County’s park system acquired from state Highway 1 in November. Famously known as Devil’s Slide, the area will soon be transformed into grassy parkland.
Before entering his current position, Nantell served as the city manager of Burlingame. San Mateo County manager John Maltbie pulled him out of retirement to deal with the ailing Parks Department while the Board of Supervisors reshuffled its staff. Nantell declined to comment on whether he’ll stay on permanently this fall.
Whoever winds up taking the reins will have their work cut out for them. Budget woes led the county to consolidate its Parks and Public Works departments in 2009, at which point it began trimming services and reducing its labor force by nearly 20 percent. In the ensuing years, park rangers had trouble keeping up with day-to-day trash removal, let alone maintaining the 168 miles of trails that wind through the 17,000 acres of parkland in San Mateo County.
By the time the Board of Supervisors decided to split the parks and public works agencies again, only 50 employees were left to maintain land that gets thousands of visitors a year, Nantell said.
Keeping the bathrooms and picnic areas clean might have been manageable, but not the more vexing problem of trail erosion and overgrowth. Rainstorms, encroaching vegetation and overdue repairs left the parks riddled with safety hazards and staffed with too few people to solve them. Increasingly, the county had to lean on hundreds of volunteers to keep its parks in order.
Now things are looking up, Nantell says. The bigger workforce will include four park rangers, two of whom will handle Devil’s Slide — plus a parks director, executive secretary and natural resources manager. Establishing a stand-alone parks department will make it easier to allocate resources, especially with the additional land. Nantell hopes for $1.7 million in Measure A funds once the new budget year begins in July — enough to absorb the new labor costs and create a small nest egg for capital improvements.
But the wish list is daunting, concedes county spokesman Marshall Wilson. After all, by nature, parks don’t pay for themselves.