Golden Gate Park fee may become permanent

CITY HALL — A $7 entrance fee for people living outside The City to enter the arboretum in Golden Gate Park is about to be extended for another decade — effectively permanently.

If a lease agreement between the Botanical Garden Society and the Recreation & Parks Department is approved by the Board of Supervisors as part of next year’s budget, non-residents will need to continue to pay the fee to enter.

After several amendments by Supervisor London Breed were agreed upon, the board’s Budget and Finance Committee OK’d the lease agreement Friday by a 4-1 vote. The fee extension won by a 3-2 vote, with supervisors Eric Mar and John Avalos voting against the latter.

Breed said she asked for changes to the lease based upon suggestions from the community:

“Many of these changes that have been asked are completely reasonable. … And we’ve been able to come to a conclusion to implement some of these changes, including one that I’m really excited about. The (RPD) will be opening the gates at 7:30 a.m. each day and allow free admission until 9 a.m.”

Breed had other amendments, like reserving the RPD’s right to grant easements, or permits for commercial cellular towers or antennas, plus commercial billboards, commercial signs and commercial advertising kiosks.

Also, no vending machines that advertise on the refrigerated case shall be visible anywhere in the garden and there should be no regularly-scheduled food trucks allowed inside the garden.

During public comment, several members of the public voiced opposition to extending the fee for non-residents, which is set to expire under a sunset provision within the current extension ordinance this September.

Dennis Antenore, of the group Keep the Arboretum Free and Take Back the Parks, said:

“When the fee was first adopted, it was adopted in the face of a very severe budget shortage and most of the supervisors who voted in favor of the fee said that they were doing so with great reluctance. … They didn’t really want to do it but they felt because of the severe budget crisis they had to. Well now, luckily, we have some relief from this budget crisis.”

The day before, RPD General Manager Phil Ginsburg reported to the committee that for the first time in years, the department’s budget was increasing instead of facing cuts. This coming year, he said, the department’s total budget will be $160.3 million, whereas last year it was $138.5 million.

After Ginsburg’s presentation, Supervisor Avalos asked if the language of the lease between the RPD and the BGS would have to be changed should the fee be allowed to expire.

Nicholas Kinsey of the RPD answered that the agreement anticipates that the fee would continue:

“It is a question I think essentially for both the City and the Botanical Garden Society if the fee would not be continued, whether or not this agreement would be appropriate for both parties moving forward. … I think it’s likely that we would have to rethink the agreement with the Botanical Garden Society if this fee were rescinded.”

Avalos responded:

“I understand Rec. & Parks’ need to create a lease. … But we actually had a sunset date for the … non-resident fee for this year and it seems like you’ve already assumed that this fee is actually going to continue … despite the date of its expiration.”

Ginsburg pointed out the longstanding relationship between the RPD and BGS. There have been previous leases between them and the BGS contributes more than $2 million per year to the arboretum.

During his presentation, Ginsburg had also reported that the BGS has committed to contributing to a new $14 million greenhouse complex at the arboretum.

Avalos said:

“I rejected the fee in 2009, and was able to approve the fee in 2010 contingent on it going away if we receive new revenue in the budget.”

Avalos stated that The City is now expecting greatly increased revenues from the Real Estate Transfer Tax. The RPD, he said, should be able to have:

“… plenty of General Fund support, that would be accessible to the parks, to be able to eliminate this fee and be able to provide other services in the park as well. … I can’t support this lease if it’s going to be contingent on a non-resident fee.”

Avalos was the one dissenting vote against the lease.

Ginsburg said in response:

“I appreciate your view supervisor; this is a really important park issue for the City. … The Botanical Society … we would not have the Botanical Garden without them. I think it’s pretty much that simple. They provide about $2 million a year in support for the garden, in both in-kind and in volunteer sweat and talent.”

As she waited outside the room to speak to the board, Sue Ann Schiff, executive director at the BGS, explained why even though the RPD budget increased this year, they still feel the need to keep the fee:

“The fee has been successful. The revenues are increasing. The visitation is increasing. … The fee helps to fund three City-gardener positions; it will also help to fund education and community outreach programs that we do. … We serve 10,000 children a year. We see it as really essential for the future of the garden.”

Schiff added:

“Our budget is about two-and-a-half to three million dollars a year. … The non-resident fee, at the end of this year, will generate more than $600,000 in revenue for one year. … We have worked in partnership with the City for almost 60 years. … We both feel the fee needs to continue.”

Which, of course, is precisely the opposite of what one of the most vocal public critics of the fee, Harry S. Pariser, expressed to the board about the lease:

“This is a bad contract. … We need to renegotiate this contract and we need to throw out these fees. … Why are we being used to franchise just because they can pay money? They can buy politicians and the wealthy want it for themselves! It’s wrong!”