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City to take back parks this year, mayor says Olmsted group's role remains unclear

Mayor Byron W. Brown says the city will retake control of all its parks and recreational centers at the end of this year.

His move will end an arrangement with Erie County government that began in 2004, when the county -- in a step toward regional government that was supposed to save taxpayers money -- agreed to take over the maintenance of all city parks.

"I believe this in the best interest of the City of Buffalo in order to continue to improve park maintenance and provide comprehensive programming that will enhance services for our youth and residents," the mayor said.

But some city parks lovers are concerned about the move -- especially if it means the not-for-profit Olmsted Parks Conservancy no longer will maintain six of the city's highest-profile parks.

Under a subcontracting agreement with the county, the Olmsted group now oversees Delaware, Cazenovia, Front, Martin Luther King, Riverside and South parks.

The organization says it aims to maintain and improve the parks system designed more than a century ago by famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

"The Olmsted parks have never looked better than they have in the last few years," said Ruth Lampe, a longtime Parkside resident and board member of the Parkside Community Association. "I would hate to see the city lose the professionalism of the Olmsted organization. . . . I would be astonished if that happened."

"At Delaware Park, the flowers and trees they have planted and the pathways they have created are beautiful," added Monica R. Cichon, another board member with the Parkside group. "The idea of taking them out of the picture concerns me -- very, very much."

Peter K. Cutler, the mayor's chief spokesman, would not speculate Saturday on whether the Olmsted group's role will continue.

He said the mayor has questions about some of the conservancy's hiring practices, and he said the city plans to discuss those matters with the Olmsted group in an upcoming series of negotiations.

"All the issues will be brought to the table, including the job they have done in managing the parks, and the mayor's concerns about diversity in the workplace, paying employees a living wage and residency," Cutler said.

Does the mayor believe that the Olmsted Conservancy has done a good job on the parks it maintains and manages?

"I'm not going to comment because of the negotiations that will be coming up," Cutler said.

Delaware Council Member Michael J. LoCurto said he agrees with Lampe's praise of the job done by the Olmsted Conservancy, adding that he hopes the mayor's plan does not indicate an intention to "take control" of the Olmsted group.

"From my standpoint, it's crucial that the conservancy continue as caretaker of all the Olmsted parks," LoCurto said. "I would hope that this isn't a control issue on the part of the mayor. He does have a track record of micromanaging things."

In a plan touted as one that would save taxpayers $3.5 million, then-Mayor Anthony M. Masiello and then-County Executive Joel A. Giambra agreed in June 2004 that the county would take over 180 city parks, large and small, including golf courses.

As part of the agreement, the county hired the Olmsted Conservancy to manage the six parks designed by Olmsted, in addition to several parkways and circles.

The agreement, which was supposed to last 15 years, also called for transferring about 60 Buffalo Parks workers to the county work force.

At the end of this year, those workers will return to the city and be assigned to the Public Works Department, Cutler said.

In recent years, some city residents have complained to The Buffalo News that county workers have not done a good job of taking care of the city's smaller, "non-Olmsted" parks.

David J. Colligan, chairman of the Olmsted Conservancy, said the mayor's decision to end the partnership with the county has him "concerned, but not alarmed."

"I know this mayor as a man who has shown a tremendous commitment to the Olmsted parks. From everything I know of him, he will continue that commitment and continue doing the right thing with the parks," Colligan said.

But Colligan said he wonders about the mayor's interest in the hiring practices of the Olmsted Conservancy, a not-for-profit corporation not controlled by the city or county.

"I don't have the figures with me, but we have about 100 employees, including 17 year-round, full-time employees. About 50 percent of them are minorities," Colligan said. "But we don't base any of our hiring on ethnicity. We base our hiring only on how qualified and suitable a person is for a job."

Brown discussed the conservancy's hiring policies in a letter Thursday to Erie County Executive Chris Collins. It was released to the news media with a joint announcement from Brown and Collins on the termination of the city-county parks agreement.

"My administration intends to bring labor representatives and other relevant stakeholders to the negotiating table," the mayor wrote.

He also said only two of the conservancy's 14 senior managers live in the city, while 55 percent of the administrative staff live outside Buffalo.

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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