In the final meeting to decide on Stamford’s $626 million budget for the coming fiscal year, members of the Board of Representatives spent an hour and a half talking about one park.
The discussion can be summarized by paraphrasing a famous line from George Orwell’s 1945 novel, Animal Farm:
All parks are equal, but some parks are more equal than others.
It describes the thinking among city representatives who voted to cut $175,200 from Mill River Park, the jewel of downtown Stamford.
Mill River is an expanding greenway with a sparkling stream visited by elegant egrets and surrounded by blossoming cherry trees. It’s still under construction but, so far, there are lawns, walkways, patches of wildflowers, a carousel, a playground, a dog park, and a large fountain that transforms into an ice rink in winter.
Among Stamford’s 56 parks, including three Long Island Sound beaches, Mill River gets an inordinate amount of attention – and money, representatives said during the final meeting on the 2022-23 budget.
To make the point, city Rep. Nina Sherwood read from the parks maintenance page of the budget book. It says parks crews maintain not only the parks and beaches but 20 facilities, 92 lawns and medians, 30 baseball and softball fields, 15 soccer fields, three synthetic fields, and assist other departments with storm debris removal, leaf pickup and snow plowing.
“For all of that, the city allocates $3.4 million. Even with this cut, Mill River will still get $3.8 million,” Sherwood said. “It’s such a discrepancy … a true example of inequity.”
City Rep. Virgil de la Cruz said the budget for Boccuzzi Park in his Waterside district was cut by $900,000.
“So budgets are limited,” de la Cruz said. “As to the notion of equity, I don’t know.”
City Rep. Jeff Stella said he and a fellow representative, the late Rodney Pratt, fought for years to get a restroom built at Lione, a busy park in their West Side district.
“It was supposed to cost $425,000, but we found a way to save $200,000 – money that didn’t come back to Lione Park,” Stella said. “Right now, with all the leagues playing at Lione, the bathrooms are closed. We’re told it’s because the city doesn’t have the funding. If cutting this Mill River money sends a message that, next year, we have to put more in the budget for parks, I’m OK with that.”
Donors contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to Mill River Park, but that has not been its history.
The park was first planned in the 1920s, when city officials envisioned a New York-style “Central Park,” but nothing was built for decades. At one point the Army Corps of Engineers walled in the river to stop it from flooding the downtown. But the walls stopped the water from running.
Mill River went stagnant. Tires and shopping carts stuck up out of the mud, and the park became a haven for drug dealers, prostitutes and muggers.
Finally in 2004, city leaders formed the Mill River Collaborative, a nonprofit organization tasked with renovating the park. Work began in 2009 using, in part, Tax Increment Financing, a funding method that subsidizes public improvement projects.
Under the TIF, the collaborative gets some of the tax revenue the city collects from properties surrounding the park. The idea is that the park improvements raise the value of the properties, which then are taxed more. The city splits the increased tax revenue with the collaborative, 50-50.
According to Sherwood’s calculations, that amounts to $3.2 million a year for the Mill River Collaborative. The problem, she said, is that, even with the tax revenue and money earned from donors and fundraising events, Mill River Park still gets taxpayer dollars.
In its deal with the collaborative, the city agreed to contribute at least $500,000 a year, as long as the collaborative raises at least that amount privately, which it has done.
The $175,200 cut to the collaborative’s 2022-23 budget request took the city’s contribution down to $500,000.
“The city has given so much money to the Mill River Collaborative and they have done great things with it,” Sherwood said. “But we have a marina at Cummings Park that was destroyed by a hurricane seven years ago, and we still have no money to fix it.”
Other parks are run down, and the city has just one parks police officer to address complaints about speeding, drinking, drug use, fighting, excessive noise and other problems in the parks.
Representatives who voted against the cut said the Mill River Collaborative offers excellent programs for children, is building classrooms for environmental education and adding 11 acres of green space.
Few nonprofit organizations have been as successful in fulfilling their missions as the collaborative, city Rep. David Watkins said.
“We should learn from the success of Mill River. I would like to apply that to other parks before I would like to tear Mill River down,” Watkins said.
City Rep. Eric Morson said “there’s no way” the city could have built Mill River Park on its own.
“That’s why the collaborative was founded and the TIF was established,” Morson said.
City Rep. Bonnie Kim Campbell, the Board of Representatives liaison on Mill River’s board of directors, said she believes in many of the programs the collaborative offers.
But she voted for the cut. The collaborative must work harder to include her struggling West Side district, adjacent to the thriving downtown, Campbell said.
“The park has to be more inclusive and less cost-prohibitive” with programs and events, Campbell said. “Everyone needs to feel it is a city park, and not an exclusive place.”