Volunteers fill the gaps
Budget shortfalls continue to require many cities and counties to cut staff and, subsequently, services. However, some local governments are recruiting residents to fill those service gaps with volunteer labor, performing duties ranging from answering phones to cleaning up public cemeteries.
Stafford County, Va., has been using up to 100 volunteers in many jobs for some time, says Cathy Reynolds, public information officer. The economic downturn has made their services — greeting visitors to city hall, filing documents and helping with special projects — more important. “We were fortunate that we didn’t have to do massive cuts here, but we did lose some positions,” Reynolds says. “The volunteers, of course, help us out a great deal in those departments where we are short staffed.”
In 2009, Stafford County’s volunteers served 8,847 hours, helping more than 70,000 residents and saving the city more than $230,000 a year in salary costs for 2009, Reynolds says. “Citizens still expect a high level of service from us,” she says. “The volunteers help us with that.”
In April, Tulsa, Okla., Mayor Dewey Bartlett asked for volunteers to help clean city-owned cemeteries in time for Memorial Day. About 200 people turned out to clean around the tombstones and mow the grass, says Bartlett’s Chief of Staff Terry Simonson.
Using volunteers is a natural money-saving strategy at a time when money must be taken from peripheral services to maintain core services, such as police, fire and public works, Simonson says. “[Funding is taken from] quality-of-life things, and [while] they’re important things, at the end of the day they just don’t seem to get the funding strength,” he says. “Those [services] are usually where volunteers can help.”
Simonson expects the volunteer program will continue, even though Bartlett has proposed revenue initiatives that may bring more funding to restore services. “In the meantime, we have an abundance of volunteers [with] good will, good spirit, and a lot of pride in their town,” Simonson says. “We’ll keep it going as long as we’ve got people who are willing to take their little piece of Tulsa and take care of it.”
Many hands to lend
The recession has not dampened Americans’ willingness to volunteer, according to the Washington-based Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). In 2008, 61.8 million Americans, or 26.4 percent of the adult population, contributed 8 billion hours of volunteer service worth $162 billion, according to a CNCS report released last July. The volunteering rate held steady between 2007 and 2008, according to CNCS, while the number of volunteers slightly increased by about 1 million.