Feature Article - February 2011
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Budget Defense Tactics

Use Business Sense & Strategic Partnerships to Survive

By Deborah L. Vence

Parks and recreation departments will continue to struggle well into 2012 and remain in defense mode of their budgets as the erratic economy forces municipalities to unwillingly shrink their already dwindling financial plans even more.

"I think from the NRPA's perspective, the whole range of parks and recreation—including at the state level—it's a tough time right now. The recession is clearly not over for them.

It's still taking its toll. A number of managers predicted that we haven't seen the worst of it yet. How long is it going to last? It will still go on for a couple of years—if it returns to whatever it was before. This is the new normal. It isn't going back to what it was," said Richard J. Dolesh, chief of public policy for the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), based in Ashburn, Va.

And, "2011 and maybe half of 2012 will be the worst in terms of decreasing tax dollars for municipalities and state budgets," said Janet L. Jordan, CPRP, an associate at Moody-Nolan Inc., a Columbus, Ohio-based company that specializes in architecture, civil engineering and interior architecture.

"Many municipalities depend on state dollars for their annual operating budgets and states, unlike the federal government, must always balance their budgets. In Ohio, we are facing an $8 billion shortfall, and the cuts affecting local government dollars will be deep," she said. "Hopefully, as the economy incrementally improves and tax dollars and employment stabilize, the 2012 and/or 2013 budgets (depending on the municipality's fiscal year) will begin to increase, although probably not back to pre-recession levels in the near future."

In the midst of this downturn and uncertainty, however, municipalities and other cash-strapped entities need to know how to defend their parks and recreation budgets from drastic cuts. No one-size-fits-all solution exists, but some industry experts are optimistic and believe that there are some clear-cut ways parks and recreation programs and facilities can be saved.

Make Your Case

One way to defend your budget is to make a compelling case as to why parks and recreation is so valuable.

"A strong case, and many try to make it, is [that parks and recreation] is an essential public service in the eyes of taxpaying citizens. What does it take to be perceived as an essential public service? It's a thorny question, but one worth delving into. Does your mayor consider you an essential public service?" Dolesh said.

"In the best sense, parks and recreation is. It's preventative and reduces other costs of government services," he added. "These are, increasingly, public parks that people go to and stay fit and stay active, reducing the cost of other things in many ways."