Feature Article - February 2011
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Budget Defense Tactics

Use Business Sense & Strategic Partnerships to Survive

By Deborah L. Vence

Re-evaluate Programs & Fees

Even though many cities don't always appreciate parks and recreation departments as essential city services, an additional way to help protect your budget during lean times is to re-evaluate programs, services and management practices.

"Do you track direct and indirect program delivery costs as well as program revenues? Is there duplication of leisure services and programs in the community? Who are potential partners for programs and services and not necessarily dollars, like chamber of commerce members, civic associations and service clubs?" said Jordan, of Moody-Nolan Inc.

"If a parks and recreation department hasn't been tracking their services and budgets through consistent evaluations, telling their story and touting their triumphs to elected officials and their constituents before the recession, it's difficult to suddenly start when faced with budget cuts," she added. "Empirical evidence is the best first line of defense when justifying budget appropriation 'adjustments.' Anticipate change and be prepared."

Similarly, Dolesh said that parks and recreation departments need to look at fees and charges to see if changes need to be made.

"Increase fees, or find new ways to increase them. There are some who decry this. A danger is there that you are creating an unequal system … and that's a concern," he said. "Managers who have fixed or increase operating costs clearly are looking at diminishing budgets or mainstream cuts. They have to come up with new sources of revenue or lay off people."

Act Like an Enterprise

Finally, and quite possibly, most importantly, is to start running operations more like a business—something that should be the way of the future for parks and recreation, experts say.

Tom O'Rourke, executive director of the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission in South Carolina, said parks and recreation departments need to start changing their ways and begin running their operations like a business if they are going to prevent budget cuts.

"Our budgets [at Charleston County Parks and Recreation] have increased each year. Seventy percent of our operating budget is generated by user fees. The way we set up this department, and it's simple to understand, is that whoever uses the service pays for the service," O'Rourke said.

"For example, we have events, attractions, waterparks, fishing piers, and we operate these as a business, and the money that's generated with some profits goes back in to cover the costs to run the park system," O'Rourke said. "The interesting thing is that governments are hurting because of the decreased tax base. And many departments rely on the property tax base 100 percent to run the programs.

"What we have found is that entertainment and leisure activities, and I don't care what people's wallets are, they are going to continue doing this. As municipal governments lose their budgets and cut services, the cuts are going to happen somewhere else," he said.

What works for Charleston County Parks is that it's not just a park system for people who have money. The commission developed a foundation to help fund other attractions and services, as well.

"We have people, young children in rural areas playing football, and don't pay any fee for that service," he said. "Historic parks, nature centers, they are a big part of what we do. We will make it in the fishing piers at retail sales and events, and do other things. I have been busy. I have been all over this country. People want to know, 'How are you doing this?' You set up a system where you have the users cover the costs of what they do."

And, it's easy to explain how it works.

"If you live in Charleston County and hate leisure services, none of the money [you spend] goes toward that. [On the other hand], if you live in Charleston County [and want to use parks and recreation services], you have to bring $11 to get in. It just makes sense," O'Rourke explained.

"What governments have is the bonding capacity to fund these things with revenue bonds—then they have extreme profits," he said. "So, it's a business model that is very structured, but consistent. We don't just make decisions to do new things without feasibility studies. We have to make sure that it will be supported by the users."