I-Team: Repair Orders Can Linger for Months at NYC Parks

Repair orders for broken playground equipment, trip hazards and other issues earmarked for "immediate attention" at New York City parks can sit open for more than a year, NBC 4 New York's I-Team has found. 

According to a database of work orders obtained through a Freedom of Information request, 197 "immediate attention" work orders stayed open for more than four months between March 2014 and March 2015. 

An analysis of the work order database shows, on average, it took the city 36 days to close work orders for problems labeled “immediate attention.”

In one instance, on April 7, 2014, a Department of Parks & Recreation employee created a work order to fix “multiple 2 ½ inch cracks” in the pavement of Brooklyn’s Hickman Playground. More than 470 days later, the work order was still listed as open.

In January, a Parks employee drafted a work order to repair “protruding sharp edges at the top of fences” near two swing sets on the Conch Playground in Far Rockaway. Although the hazard was labeled “immediate action,” the I-Team found jagged metal points still sticking out from the fences more than 200 days later.

Earlier this year, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer issued a “ClaimStat” report showing a 53 percent increase over the last decade in playground-related lawsuits against the city. The claims --often over trip hazards and broken jungle gyms -- cost taxpayers more than $20 million in settlements and judgments.

“Whether it is ClaimStat or your investigation, it’s clear that there is a problem with the Parks Department maintaining our playgrounds,” Stringer said.

But the city maintains the database of work orders does not tell the full story. In an email to the I-Team, Parks Department spokeswoman Crystal Howard said park managers have a “work order completion rate of more than 82 percent.”

In another email, she said repair problems are often fixed, even though work orders are still listed as open. Howard believes delays in data entry may be making it appear playground problems are taking longer to fix than they really are.

“Not all entries that are completed in the field are always entered as completed in the system immediately or in very short turn,” Howard wrote in an email to the I-Team. “The reported date of completion may not be reflective of the actual work.”

Howard sent the I-Team a spreadsheet showing that the cracks at the Hickman Playground and sharp protruding metal at the top of those Conch Playground fences had been fixed back in May. The Parks Department suggested video of pavement cracks and sharp metal captured by the I-Team may be new problems that have cropped up since then. 

But Geoffrey Croft, President of NYC Park Advocates, a watchdog group that pushes for better upkeep in public parks, said it is troubling if the city’s database of work orders doesn’t reflect real time conditions on playgrounds.

“There should be no trip hazards, there should be no hanging limbs," Croft said. "There should be no cracks in sidewalks. This stuff should be taken care of."

A Daily News report recently detailed some of the city’s 566 payouts for playground-related personal injury claims over the last five years. Among them was the case of a 6-year-old who lost the top of her middle finger after it was sliced off by sharp metal protruding from a slide. In another case, internal Parks Department records showed an inspector flagged a worn-out safety mat weeks before an 8-year-old broke his elbow on that very mat.

Another Parks spokesman, Sam Biederman, said that under new Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver, the city has intensified playground safety measures like installing "playground associates” at 123 sites citywide and monitoring “immediate attention” problems on a daily basis.

"In December, we improved safety at playgrounds across the city by welding or removing metal spinning disc equipment," Biederman said.

The I-Team also found significant variation in the number of days it takes to close work orders on playground equipment and safety surfaces between the boroughs. For example, between March 2014 and March 2015, it took an average of five days to close playground equipment or safety surface work orders in the Bronx. But it took an average of 81 days to close the same kinds of work orders in Queens. Of the 3,200 work orders in the database, only two involved New York’s best known park, Central Park. Repair problems there are generally taken care of by a private nonprofit funded largely by wealthy donors.

When the I-Team visited the Hickman Playground, Diane Petrou was watching her 5-year-old dart across crevices and puckers in the pavement.

“If they do know about it, shame on them for not taking care of it,” Petrou said. “You know it’s not right to our children.”

According to Croft, the only meaningful way to bring most city parks in line with the state of repair in Central Park is to increase funding.

"The elected officials refuse to allocate the proper funds,” Croft said.

“In this latest budget there is less than a half a percent for an agency responsible for 14 percent of the city’s land,” Croft said. 

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