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TREES CAN'T vote - long the reason for how ill-funded our parks have been - but soon, they will be speaking eloquently.

Thousands of them will soon be standing to testify about a remarkable change that the city's parks have undergone. That change begins with more money - $2.5 million that Mayor Nutter included in his first budget. Of that increase, $1 million will be set aside for planting 3,500 to 4,000 trees throughout the city's parks and neighborhoods. Smartly, many of them are planned for the city's nine high-crime neighborhoods.

The rest of the new money is earmarked for new park staff, materials and supplies. With 21 new staff positions, grounds upkeep and maintenance will improve. So will safety: the 18 full-time rangers will see their ranks swell by three.

All this signals a historic turning point for Fairmount Park: a recognition from the city that it matters. Remarkably, this is the first time in decades that the park's budget has seen an increase.

But even more profound and fundamental changes could be right around the corner. On June 10, at 10 a.m., City Council holds a hearing on bills that would consolidate the governance of Fairmount Park and the Recreation Department, and would reconstitute the Fairmount Park Commission.

Both of these are moves that this page has supported. In fact, these were among many recommendations made in our Acres of Neglect series that uncovered the sorry state of our parks - the scarce funding, the piggish approach many citizens have to its beauty and a governance organization that worked fine in the 19th century, but had been surpassed by the needs of a big, modern urban park system. So while we are thrilled - and proud - of these new changes, we also wonder:

What took so long? The series ran in 2001. That's three park executive directors ago. Two Fairmount Park Commission terms ago. Special task forces, endless debates in and out of City Council and too many inoperable restrooms ago.

Certainly, much of this delay is due to the leisurely schedule democracy must often keep. But we can't help wondering how much might be attributed to territorial and political maneuvering. Which is a terrible way to treat a tree.

If Council keeps its schedule, voters will get their say in November on a charter change to dissolve the commission and reconsitutute it under a parks and rec department.

And then, we'll finally be able to welcome our parks into the 21st century. *