No walk in the park
The funds to run parks and other recreational facilities are fast becoming a casualty of local governments’ battles to balance their budgets. Many communities have deferred park maintenance to the point that some facilities are in dire need of attention. Others even have sold portions of their park assets to private management firms or commercial developers.
For its 2004 budget, for example, Dallas is considering reducing all department funds by 5 percent to 15 percent. The department cuts come on top of aggregate cuts of at least 20 percent in the past few years. The most drastic budget reductions being considered by local officials would require closing many of the city’s recreation centers, severe cutbacks at the Dallas zoo, turning off public fountains and delaying already deferred facility maintenance.
“I don’t know if we can take a 15 percent cut and still operate,” says Robert Parks, a member of the city’s park board.
Dallas experienced a similar challenge in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which resulted in equivalent cutbacks to the parks department. “It took us years to recover from that,” says Lois Finkelman, city councilwoman and former president of the park board.
Many communities are confronted with similar trials. Park maintenance is being squeezed by the obligations to provide essential services.
“This is very hard for me, understanding my obligation as a councilperson to balance the city budget and preserve essential services when, as a former member of the park board, I know why the benefits of parks to a community are just as important and missed when they are reduced or eliminated,” Finkelman says.
However, some elected officials, parks advocates and community staffs are seeking, and in some cases finding, creative ways of securing the money they need. “We’re aggressively pursuing private and state-funded grants,” says Harry Gross, director of leisure services for Dunedin, Fla., which is in a partnership with Pinellas County that incorporates several less traditional ways to fund park maintenance.
Finkelman says that similar efforts are under way in her city. “But most of these are matching grants,” she says. “Coming up with the money through the general fund or bond initiatives is not as easy as it once was.”
Out of necessity, communities are searching for alternative ways to find money to maintain what they have and better ways to communicate the importance of parks and recreational facilities. More cooperative efforts that span governmental lines are being explored, with shared costs and obligations being the goal. Often, enlisting advocacy groups and a larger pool of advocates to tell their story are becoming lynchpins in a strategy that parks and recreation departments hope will result in their survival.
Some counties are working out special arrangements with cities in their jurisdiction to fund recreational programs and parks facilities. Bill Scalzo, director of the Maricopa County (Ariz.) Recreation Services Department, says the challenges to park development and administration in his county are being met across governmental lines.
The Cactus League Partnership between Maricopa County and several communities is one example of intergovernmental cooperation. The partnership provides funds to attract (and keep) major league baseball teams to the area for spring training. The recent initiative between the county and Surprise, Ariz., produced a state-of-the-art complex that simultaneously hosts the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals.
“It’s a successful way of dividing expenses in the interests of common park-based initiatives,” Scalzo says. “Working with several cities in the county, we’ve identified how to create and improve such facilities.”
Generally, to fund facilities like the Surprise baseball park, the county sponsors bonds, which generate a large part of the construction funds. Some of the revenues from the baseball park then find their way into each city’s park budget. Reducing parks and recreational facility costs through intergovernmental affiliations shows the public how financial risk is being mitigated, Scalzo says. “The public approves of such cooperation because the development cost is shared,” Scalzo says. “No one takes the entire hit; plus it makes money.”
Pinellas County, Fla., is another jurisdiction employing cooperative efforts with city parks departments. Nearly one third of the county’s residents live in unincorporated areas. Most organized sports leagues and recreational programs are operated by cities, which provide those services to residents at a nominal fee. But, unincorporated county residents must pay an additional fee to those cities, which must recover recreational costs not covered by city taxes.
Until recently, unincorporated residents had two choices: form a special taxing district or pay the higher fee to play. Rather than create countywide sports leagues and assume the financial obligations alone, Pinellas County launched a program that reimburses unincorporated residents the difference they have to pay to participate in city programs.
“The supplement doesn’t generate any more revenue for us as much as it better assures that there won’t be a revenue drop due to the inability of county residents being unable to pay the higher rate to participate,” says Dunedin’s Gross. “It’s also leading to further exploration of other shared park projects between us and Pinellas County.
“We recently bought a golf course and approached the county to set up a similar reimbursement program for that,” Gross says.
The reimbursement programs are one of a growing number of partnerships between Pinellas County, its cities and the county school board to upgrade and maintain existing facilities. Ultimately, the partnerships allow more of the public to participate, which in many cases, generates more fees.
“These [cooperative programs] include lighting an existing ball field behind a school or upgrading the playground equipment at a community park,” says Liz Warren, Pinellas County director of parks. “It’s faster and makes more economic sense than acquiring and developing property for recreational purposes.”
Higher fees and private funding
To some, a quicker fix might be raising user fees, as well as fees paid by property developers. But raising fees comes with a caveat. John deBessonet, director of park planning in Harris County, Texas, says user fees depend on what residents are willing to accept.
“Ours [athletic fees] are based on a sliding scale according to what [the participants] can afford to pay. An inner-city pee-wee football league’s user fees are much lower than those of a white-collar softball league.”
“You can’t price yourself out of the market,” Gross says. “We’re trying to develop a leisure services enterprise division within our department designed to explore and generate funds from as many sources as possible, such as special events fees, grants and fairly structured user fees. We’re heavily subsidized by the taxpayers, so our user fees must be reflective, but fair.”
In recent years, many parks departments have benefited from private donations to keep programs going. “We’ve been fortunate over the years from the generosity of the private sector to fund, for example, our fill-and-drain neighborhood swimming pools at various times when it appeared they might have to close,” Finkelman says. “But in this struggling economy, private sources cannot be relied upon to contribute to the degree they have.”
Some communities also explore significant increases in developer fees to pay for parks. “We’re collecting half the fees we need to build them in today’s market,” says Curtis Aaron, Fontana, Calif., public services director.
Fontana is contemplating raising the developer fee by as much as 100 percent. Area developers, though sympathetic to Fontana’s plight, are monitoring the situation closely and hoping that if the fee increases, it will not do so disproportionately.
“It’s hard to address [the issue of higher development fees],” says Deborah January-Beavers, manager of quality of life programs for the Greater Houston Partnership, an advocate of Houston’s business community. “Developers [are] certainly willing to do what is necessary to help in these hard times [but] I’m sure they don’t want to contribute more than their fair share.”
deBessonet wonders if such hefty increases might harm rather than help. “Houston historically has been very development friendly,” he says. “Developers are facing substantial increased costs due to environmental regulations. This remedy, at best, only nominally addresses the immediate challenge of maintaining what we have.”
Spreading the word and building consensus
One way to keep parks and recreation facilities running is to enlist the support of the community at large. Parks departments have long been alone in promoting the importance of parks to communities, but today more groups are joining in to help spread the word.
“There’s an emerging awareness involving park advocates and the business community that is becoming more beneficial [to our cause],” deBessonet says. “In recent years, the business community has gotten behind our park bond issues, open space plans and beautification plans through The Greater Houston Partnership.”
deBessonet says that convincing civic leaders and budget officials that parks are as important as any community budget item is crucial to a parks department’s survival. January-Beavers says her organization is taking the lead in helping to communicate the importance of parks to the community. “We hold public functions and media events in the interests of parks rather often,” she says. “[We also] assist in the grant funding process and even help bring in other agencies.”
January-Beavers says that floodplains would be an excellent location for greenbelts, hike and bike trails. A community could work with flood control agencies to develop the park and eventually use the agencies’ funds along with additional grants to maintain the park, all while fulfilling the original purpose of managing stormwater.
Nevertheless, the people with the purse strings still have to be convinced of the value parks bring to a community. “Our voters know that parks are important but sometimes the budget writers don’t see the connection,” deBessonet says. “But now business leaders and park advocates publicly make the same point about how vital parks are in the overall scheme of things. That gets more attention by not only elected officials, but the media. In the face of such coordinated advocacy, it’s only a matter of time until elected officials begin to come around.”
Scalzo agrees with the need to better inform the public about the difficulties of funding local parks and recreational facilities. “We tend to only want to release good news,” he says. “If it’s [not good news about our parks], we must work harder to make the community understand what’s going on.”
Finding the money to survive by building inter-governmental coalitions and letting the public know the value parks and recreation facilities bring to communities are the most potent ways to keep parks departments viable. The contribution of parks and recreational facilities to a community’s quality of life is generally not well-known or readily understood by budget managers. Worse, some government leaders see them as a source of funds that might help balance tighter budgets.
“When the economy goes down and people don’t have jobs, citizens end up taking greater advantage of programs offered by parks because they’re accessible and affordable,” Finkleman says. “Parks are resources that must not be trivialized, nor forced to bear more than an equal share of the cost-cutting burden.”
Gary N. Bowen is a Dallas-based freelance writer.