Show Me the Money

Finding New Budget Strategies


More recreation facilities are finding better ways to save money and make their budgets work by means of energy conservation and partnerships.

"There are a number of ways to economize and make the most of a tight budget," said Adrian Benepe, senior vice president and director of city park development for The Trust for Public Land in New York.

So, what are some specific strategies that work best to help make budgets more efficient?

Make Volume Purchases

If parks and facilities have to manage multiple locations, in particular, it's even more important that they find ways to cut back costs.

One way to streamline the budget is through centralized purchasing, in terms of leveraging buying power, noted Denise Lam, senior vice president of integrated business systems for the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago.

Centralized purchasing involves making volume purchases to get better prices.

"Any facility in parks and recreation that have not have participated in a GPO (group purchasing organization) … that's very highly recommended for them to be a part of," she said. "Many government agencies participate in different purchasing organizations. It allows [organizations] to have a purchasing of the same goods, but with the purchasing power, we can get it in at the lower price."

The challenge, however, is that you lose flexibility in having to buy the same brands or similar products.

"One of the things that's important is [knowing] your current purchasing habits and what some of your own organizational philosophies are," Lam noted.

She also stressed that it's important to understand the procure-to-pay process, which involves requesting, purchasing, receiving, paying for and accounting for goods and services.

"Do you have a robust procure-to-pay purchase process? Who can purchase what and in what capacity? If I have a pool and I have aquatics managers or athletic managers, what can they buy? Who needs to approve it, and how [can you] relate that into your budget?" she said.

"Especially in this environment or as an organization, understand where you are at … streamline and save money," she added.

Save Energy


Conserving energy is another useful way to streamline operations.

"It's important that you study your energy utilization," Lam said.

For example, she said the rates for electricity in the Midwest were favorable at the end of 2015, and pointed out that you can save money by locking into a certain rate. "We studied our utilization, studied the rate and looked at it in three-year increments," she noted. In the past three years, you can go month by month and look at how the rate has changed.

Utility companies usually know every region and know that they are probably different. You can look into utilizations and projects in that region and how energy consumptions will be, Lam suggested.

The Y also tries to manage its energy for all of its facilities by testing their consumption.

"We tell our facilities to turn off the lights. We adjust our temperatures, by adjusting the heat and turning it down a little bit, or, [in] areas we're not using, not using energy as freely," she noted.

As a result, three of 23 Y centers saved thousands of dollars. "They predicted we were going to be using less energy. We saved money," she said.

Meanwhile, Benepe added that you can save a lot of energy through energy-efficient lighting and the use of solar power.

"That's one of the ways that many agencies are doing capital upgrades to make them more efficient," he said.

"You can save precious expenses in the budget. That's always the pressure point. For park agencies, it is the expense budget," he noted, adding that state and local governments often have incentives for using solar power.

Develop Partnerships


Another effective way to help make the budget work better is by way of partnerships.

The YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago, for example, is participating in several group purchasing organizations, or GPOs.

"We partner with a few not-for-profits in the Chicagoland area. We partner with [them] and … negotiate buying power with local vendors," Lam said, adding that organizations you can partner with include social service organizations, recreation facilities, schools and churches.

The benefits include the fact that, as a group, you can negotiate a lower rate, such as with food vendors. Working with other nonprofit organizations, you can provide food at a lower cost—both in the cost per unit and in lowering the per drop cost.

Moreover, through the GPOs, you can negotiate with the same vendors for office supplies, maintenance supplies and janitorial supplies, for example.

"We partner with other organizations [and use the] same vendors for landscaping and snow removal. The Y [has] 27 facilities here in the Chicagoland area. With other nonprofits we can negotiate a deal," she said.

With partnerships, the Y leverages space at schools and churches, too. "So, what we looked at, from streamlining operations, [are] what programs and opportunities that may be beyond your facility," she said. Once school is out for the day, for instance, the space is not being used anymore and you can go in and offer additional programs.

As a result, the kids in the school and the Y both benefit. In this case, this is when it comes to be less about buying power and more about how the space can be used better and the community better served. As a result, more services and benefits are offered, but not by adding a significant cost. The Y already has empty space, and can offer programs without adding additional costs.

Establishing partnerships with other government agencies, as well as nonprofit and for-profit groups, is beneficial and can help save money.

One of the areas of the biggest costs is water management. In New York City, for example, TPL has worked with public schools to rebuild schoolyards and turn them into playgrounds. The playgrounds can serve more than one purpose, for instance, providing an area to capture stormwater runoff.

Many cities now are strapped for parkland and they are looking at schoolyards in such a way to open those to the public when students aren't using them—entering into joint-use agreements and coming up with multiple benefits.

Many cities now are strapped for parkland and they are looking at schoolyards in such a way to open those to the public when students aren't using them—entering into joint-use agreements and coming up with multiple benefits.

"Strategic park directors need to scan the landscape for other sources of funding. For example, they can tap into things like stormwater management funding by incorporating green infrastructure into park projects, enabling them to stretch scarce parks capital funding," Benepe said.

For example, you can take a basic schoolyard and make it into a nice playground, but then you also can add in green infrastructure. In New York City, there are playgrounds that have synthetic turf fields, with big permeable layers underneath to absorb stormwater. And, at the low point, rain gardens are put in to be visually pleasing.

One of the ways city water agencies can improve water quality includes green infrastructure. In New York City and Philadelphia, for example, water agencies are doing funding improvement projects.

It's "[going] from being problems for the city to being assets," Benepe said.

"That serves multiple benefits for one facility and very much something park agencies are looking at," he noted. And, when you are convinced that something is providing community benefits, you are more inclined to spend money on that.

A March 2016 TPL study, "City Parks, Clean Water: Making Great Places Using Green Infrastructure," revealed that TPL physically has built water-absorbing parks from New York and Philadelphia to San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The study highlights the successes and challenges of water-smart parks, and looks at both the technologies and political issues that are involved in using green infrastructure to make cities more desirable, more livable and more successful.

A case example cited in the study involves Public School 261 in Brooklyn, N. Y. The schoolyard is easing the burden on an overtaxed waterway, while also providing additional community play space in a park-poor neighborhood.

According to the study, "Brooklyn's P.S. 261, whose schoolyard had been paved over decades earlier, leaving a half-acre of asphalt and a deteriorated jungle gym for recess, was one of the few locations in its neighborhood that had a bit of open space. Fortunately, the site was a priority for two different city agencies — the city's Department of Education (for playground renovation) and the Department of Environmental Protection (for water quality improvements from reduced sewer overflows) — as well as a private conservation group, The Trust for Public Land."


Since 1996 TPL has been working with New York City to convert school playgrounds into after-school-hours community parks. "In the early days of the partnership, the goal was merely to work with students, parents, teachers and community residents to create great play spaces with such amenities as fields, running tracks, gazebos, basketball and game courts, and even hair-braiding areas. Beginning in 2012, the mission was expanded to also include stormwater management."

"P.S. 261 was the first of what became 40 schoolyard renovations carried out through the three-way partnership. Although the construction could have become a source of strife in the community, the public process and the many ancillary benefits to the neighborhood were so compelling that the reworked park was accepted enthusiastically," as stated in the study.

In another case example, The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District needed to reduce sewage overflows into Lake Erie in order to meet the obligations of its consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. To accomplish its goal, the district decided to use an array of gray and green infrastructure techniques to capture, hold, store and infiltrate stormwater.

An area on Cleveland's east side has many vacant properties and severe overflows. A public-private partnership devised an urban agriculture and green infrastructure program. The project includes new storm sewers and street catch basins, as well as four bioretention ponds, the largest of which is dug out of a former playing field in Otter Park. (The park's swings, playground and basketball court were not affected.) The field was replaced with amended soils and a thick stand of native plants; an underdrain slowly will release the stormwater to a nearby piped stream, according to the study.

Finally, there are opportunities with for-profit or nonprofit service providers—Boys and Girls Clubs as well as health clubs. "In New York City we entered into several for-profit agreements with health clubs," Benepe noted, and they organized public health exercise classes … Zumba classes, aerobics classes.

Nonprofit providers provide services for city-owned facilities. And then there are classic public partnerships, too, different conservancies, offering a wider array of services from maintenance and operations to skilled horticulture, that work in partnership with cities.

A February 2015 TPL report stated that a "growing number of cities now utilize private donations to rebuild, refurbish, and even maintain some of their most iconic parks."

And, the favored revitalization structure today is the conservancy. In fact, in New York alone, there are nearly two dozen such private organizations providing financial support for a park, and thanks to some high-profile successes, the new approach is emerging as a significant park management model in the right circumstances, according to the report.

The TPL report, "Public Spaces/Private Money: The Triumphs and Pitfalls of Urban Park Conservancies," explained that conservancies are private, nonprofit park-benefit organizations that raise money independent of the city and spend it under a plan of action that is mutually agreed upon with the government. "Most conservancies neither own nor hold easements on the parkland; the land remains the city's, and the city retains ultimate authority over everything that happens there. While a few conservancies also exist in suburban and rural places, it is in cities that they've made the biggest impact."


"Typically, conservancies are created to fund large capital projects, such as repairs to a building, monument, fountain, pathway system, major lawn, forest or lake. Many evolve to oversee the actual construction and even to provide additional management and programming for the park. A few move up all the way to handling park administration—from maintaining parkland to coordinating concessions to providing security. Most conservancies take on a single signature park, but a few have expanded to several or even assumed a city-wide mandate."

Several park-support nonprofits emerged in the 1970s, but the roots of the conservancy movement are traced to the founding of New York's Central Park Conservancy in 1980, according to the report.

And, around the same time as the Central Park Conservancy was being launched, on the West Coast the Golden Gate National Park Association (changed to "conservancy" in 2003) was formed in 1981 to protect the urban and suburban parklands that comprise the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

"In the years since, it has funded capital improvements and renovations at 37 sites in San Francisco and two adjacent counties. The most prominent of these is Crissy Field, a former airfield on the San Francisco waterfront that opened as a $34.5-million, 100-acre public park in 2001."