Feature Article - February 2011
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Budget Defense Tactics

Use Business Sense & Strategic Partnerships to Survive

By Deborah L. Vence

Community Surveys & Support

And, don't underestimate the power of a community, either, in helping to defend your budget.

The state of California's $20 billion budget deficit prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to propose closing up to 220 state parks as a way to shrink the deficit. But, the governor backed down from his proposal after a huge public outcry.

Such community protests prove that people really do appreciate their parks, and that it pays to consult with residents before any major decisions are made.

Tacoma, Wash., has strong advisory council support and neighborhood councils scattered throughout the community to help find out what residents want in recreation services.

"We rely on community surveys that are both scientific and special interest groups," said Jack C. Wilson, executive director of Metro Parks Tacoma, created in 1907 as a municipal corporation to manage park, recreation and zoological services and facilities for Tacoma residents.

"In April [2010], we basically did our homework, and conducted surveys, public outreach, community conversations. We didn't wait until we were having to eliminate programs," Wilson said. "Based on forecasting and loss of property and sales tax, we were going to be challenged, and we didn't want to take the community down that road. But, we argued that if you support it, it will allow us to maintain the services. They were not, in that particular point in time, not willing to support anything new, beyond our core.

"They did have a respect, appreciation and an understanding and [understood that we] needed to secure additional resources just to maintain and sustain our efforts. We are in a position where we are not losing any services, or cutting back our programs. And, when you look around many other government entities, we feel very fortunate."

Sometimes you have to go a long way to get community support, which requires a great deal of conversation and public participation.

"It doesn't happen overnight," Wilson said. "The investment we have made, planning, community outreach is paying big dividends. I thought I could put together a strategic long-term plan in one year, but it took three years."

Metro Parks Tacoma provides a golf course and two zoos. It's a very diverse park system, which requires a great deal of strategy to make sure that it's bringing those interests to the community to advance the park and recreation system there.

"We really try to learn a lot from the data. We want to be data-driven, [and] gain interest through the community through the surveys. We craft our strategy from that, [and find out] what their interests are," Wilson said. "We want to help educate them and create an awareness around trends. What was valid 25 years ago, [maybe isn't] serving the community today. That's an important part of the process as well. There are expectations and new ways of providing service that really do support and get at the changing demographics that we have in the community."

Transforming old wading pools into spraygrounds, a key feature at many parks now, helps meet the needs of the community and moving along with changing trends. Fifty years ago, a rectangular type swimming pool met the needs of the community. But, that might not necessarily be the case today.

"[Community surveys] have really helped. There [has been] a feeling of trust and confidence in terms of transforming our parks system," Wilson said. "A fundamental part of our success and future success will be that genuine effort to engage and get the community involved."