Dissent sprouts over plan to charge fee at Botanical Gardens

by Thomas K. Pendergast

Opponents of a proposal to charge non-residents of San Francisco who visit the Botanical Gardens in Golden Gate Park an entrance fee showed up in force at a City budget meeting at the Hall of Flowers on April 21. They faced off against, and traded insults with, an equal number of park employees who showed up in neon-green shirts to support the plan.

Trying every way it can, the SF Recreation and Park Department is struggling to fill a $12.4 million budget gap this year, and one small part of its plan is to start charging a $7 entrance fee to out-of-town visitors. Department officials say the plan will yield somewhere between $240,000 and $260,000 for the department's budget.

"The budget crisis is just an excuse to get the fees that the Botanical Gardens has wanted all along," said Mary Spoerer, making her comments to SF Board of Supervisors members Eric Mar, Ross Mirkarimi, John Avalos and Sean Elsbernd during public comment. "The fees will not save the garden. Locking people out and making people show identification to see if they're a local resident is not in the spirit of the garden."

Karen Kidwell of the San Francisco Parks Trust, however, supported the plan.

"I'm here tonight to speak on behalf of the trustees to support non-resident fees to the Botanical Gardens," she said. "We believe it's fair to ask non-residents to support the garden with fees targeted at them. Our trustees support this as a necessary fee to get the park through this difficult time."

The Rec. and Park Department originally estimated losing 11 gardeners if it didn't charge some kind of fee, but that estimate dropped to three full-time gardeners whose jobs were purportedly on the line when the situation was re-evaluated.

Lori Liederman wasn't buying any of it when she spoke in front of the committee.

"The imposition of fees is no assurance of jobs or good jobs," she testified. "But it is an assurance that we will lose public access to this public garden forever."

Gifford Hartman applied a little prose in his criticism of the proposed fees.

"What they're trying to do is they're trying to loot what is in the public commons," Hartman said. "This sets a bad example. This is an idea that nature has a price tag, that this is the Alcatraz of arboretum, the botanical Fisherman's Wharf, the Wal-Mart of wild things, a gated community of trees, a prison of plants."

Gregory Weir, a recreation director at Rec. and Park, said: "Nobody likes fees and charges but across the board fees went up, Tiny Tots have gone up, lots of fees have gone up. It's a reality. We've raised after-school fees and summer camp fees have doubled this summer. The garden's a beautiful place, but I think everybody has to step up and not just think of themselves."

Cynthia Anderson said she had recently been to a botanical garden in San Diego, which charged everyone a fee, and she didn't seem to think it was such a strange idea to make people pay for the privilege.

"This is a special place. That's why you all love it. That's why you're all here," she said. "The Botanical Gardens Society is suffering from donor fatigue. We're not taking in the money that we used to."

The proposal would require either garden staff or volunteers at all points of public access, checking proof of residency and taking money from non-residents. San Francisco resident Norbert Holter also supports the fee.

"I strongly support a non-residential fee charge," he told the supervisors. "This is an urban oasis, a museum that doesn't have a building but it houses a living collection of plants. This is a good way to adequately fund the garden and reverses years of under-funding. So, I urge you to approve a non-resident fee for the garden."

Denis Mosgofian, a self-described "native San Franciscan and lifelong union member," told the committee he was concerned that the admission charge would soon be expanded to include city residents.

"It's not true that a non-resident fee sometimes leads to a resident fee - It always does," he said. "This is the door opener."

Though the two minutes allotted for each speaker wasn't enough for him to elaborate, Mosgofian later referenced two publications to support his claim, both from the local activist group Keeparboretumfree.org. One states that if residents do end up paying a fee, they will essentially be paying twice, once through taxes and then at the gate. It goes on further, saying SF Mayor Gavin Newsom floated the idea of a fee for all citizens in 2009 but it was shot down. The document also claims no visitation studies have been conducted at the arboretum during the last three years.

The Rec. and Park Department's new general manager, Phil Ginsburg, addressed the committee after the public comment period.

"I'd rather speak from the heart. Not just as the general manager but as a San Franciscan," Ginsburg said. "What is it that keeps families in San Francisco? It's the parks, the open space. What I'm hearing is tension over how to use our parks and open space. Our most important mission is financial sustainability. We have to cut or raise $12.4 million, that's half our general fund subsidy. We are not joyous about having to raise fees."

Supervisor John Avalos responded to the concerns raised at the meeting by saying: "We need to have another revenue stream for our parks."

"There is a familiar concern here," said Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi. "The Japanese Tea Garden was once free but now it's not. There's also reason to question how much effort there has been trying to raise money for the parks."

As of presstime, the Board of Supervisors' Budget and Finance Committee was scheduled to discuss the fee issue at City Hall on May 12.