I-TEAM: How is Jacksonville spending money on park safety?

News4Jax digs into city budgets after 2 boys die in accidents at local parks

By Lynnsey Gardner - Investigative reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Two accidental deaths of children at Jacksonville parks in the last month prompted the I-TEAM to look into how the city spends money on park maintenance and safety.

Amari Harley, 3, died when he drowned in a water tank at Arlington's Bruce Park in October. Nahshon Green, 10, died on a swingset at Charles Clark Park in Northwest Jacksonville last weekend after getting caught in the chains of a swing. 

The I-TEAM uncovered earlier that the lid on the tank where Amari drowned had twice been noted as faulty. It's still not known if the lid was on when the boy fell in nearly a month ago, or how he wandered away from his family members, who were at the park for a birthday party.

The two family outings that ended in makeshift memorials have raised questions about how city money is spent on park safety.

News4Jax investigators combed through nearly a decade's worth of city budgets, looking to see how taxpayer dollars are being spent on repairs and equipment to keep Jacksonville's parks safe and in the best shape possible for families.

The data, which dates back to 2008, shows a total of 400 parks in Jacksonville, with playgrounds at 197 of them.

The budgets show that the administrations of Mayors John Peyton and Alvin Brown through the current administration spent on average around $2 million a year on park improvements countywide. 

Dividing that between the city's 400 parks equals about $5,000 a year per park, but not every park needs the same amount of upkeep.

Over the years, the city also allocated money for specific projects at parks throughout Jacksonville.
Before either child died, the I-TEAM sat down with Mayor Lenny Curry to talk about infrastructure spending, a subject on which he campaigned.

"I get up every day and do my job, do the best that I can, and I'm going to continue to invest in areas that I believe -- all of Jacksonville,” Curry said. “My last three budgets -- two years in office, three budgets -- have represented an investment in all of Jacksonville.”

In combing through the park budgets, the I-TEAM found Curry's most recent budget accounts for the biggest investment in city parks in more than a decade.

"When I got into office, we had the $3 billion unfunded pension liability that was eating our operating budget alive,” Curry said. “The voters signed off on that, (and) that has given us the ability now -- this was the first budget -- this budget that started Oct. 1 is the first budget that has some of that freedom to begin to invest in neighborhoods.”

And he is investing.

Curry's latest capital improvement budget calls for nearly $50 million in spending on specific park projects over the next five years.

That includes $450,000 for Charles Clark Park -- an amount that was earmarked before Nahshon’s death and mainly focuses on pool repairs.

The day after Amari's death, Curry ordered an immediate review of all water tanks at city parks and told the I-TEAM he wants the lids for the tanks standardized across the city.

According to the city, parks, including playground equipment, are inspected monthly.

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