Save Some Green
Smart Cost-Cutting Strategies
By Dawn Klingensmith
he dismal economy has everybody worried, and those who aren't paralyzed with fear or parked on a barstool making a mockery of "happy" hour might opt for a healthier way to deal with financial uncertainty, such as stepping up their workouts to relieve tension. And it makes sense in these times to check out what types of fitness classes the community center has to offer, because the programs there are generally well-run and the prices are right.
Best-case scenario: Our budget-minded fitness buff—let's call him Joe the Plumber just for kicks—strides into the locker room, changes into his exercise gear, powers through 30 minutes of cardio, showers and goes home to his wife and kids, feeling better about himself, more hopeful about his prospects and eager to return the next day for another stress-blasting workout.
But maybe Joe the Plumber has a different experience. Maybe the belly dancing class he loves is no longer offered. Maybe the lap pool is a tad too cold. Maybe the toilet tissue in the bathroom feels a little rougher. Though Joe might not make the connection, these are signs that his community center—and by extension, the parks and recreation sector as a whole—is feeling the effects of the economy, as well. The high cost of energy, for example, means something else in the budget has to give, or it's literally lights out for the facility.
In times like these, cutting operating expenses should be every facility manager's objective. Although in some cases, outright amputations are called for—in the form of discontinued programming, shorter operating hours, a downsized staff and the like—it's amazing how much money can be saved by doing something as simple as switching out light bulbs.
Even in times of economic stability, it always pays to examine operating expenses to eliminate waste and reallocate resources in ways that will enhance Joe the Plumber's enjoyment of the park where he walks his poodle and the fitness center where he bench-presses his own body weight.
Let's part ways with Joe for a spell and tour a few cities for a clearer sense of what's happening in the industry, and some tough decisions that are being made as a result. In Chicago, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum announced in October that it had cut 16 percent of its staff after seeing a 45 percent drop—about $588,000—in income during the first two months of the fiscal year. The museum brought in $1.32 million during the same period a year ago. In Sandusky, Ohio, two of the city's three major waterparks, Great Wolf Lodge and Castaway Bay, are no longer open Tuesdays and Wednesdays because they weren't generating enough midweek revenues. Likewise, in June 2008, Campus Recreation at UC Davis, part of the University of California system, announced it would reduce the hours of operation for its popular Rec Pool by eight hours per week due to budget reductions.
"There were some trials due to the fact that we changed the hours mid-season, which is unusual for this type of facility. Patrons check the hours at the beginning of the season and don't expect them to vary," said Janna Tolla, assistant director of aquatics. "But overall, our patrons accepted and understood the reasons for the change."
She added, "We are keeping the new hours for the 2009 season, as overall it was a good change. The schedule was developed by evaluating our usage patterns and peak visit periods. We inconvenienced very few patrons, and maintained our user numbers and revenue goals."
Reducing operating hours in response to budget woes would not have gone over as smoothly at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. That's because in the summer of 2007, students were already complaining to officials and local news media because the campus Recreation Center was open fewer hours than any other major university rec center nearby. SIUC's Recreational Sports and Services department said closing relatively early was necessary because of the energy costs required to keep the building operating. In addition, minimum wage increased by a dollar, so staffing presented a hardship, as well.
Responsive to students' concerns, SIUC conducted an energy audit to find ways to cut utility costs and increase efficiency, enabling the Recreation Center to extend its hours of operation.
The major line items in terms of operating costs are labor; energy and utilities; general administrative expenses; marketing; repairs and maintenance; insurance; and, in the case of privately owned facilities, real estate taxes. Spending cuts in all but one of these areas should be considered when money is scarce, according to David Sangree, president, Hotel & Leisure Advisors, Cleveland.
"I would leave marketing alone," he said. "You need marketing money to draw customers, to let them know what's going on and that you're open for business."
Otherwise, Joe the Plumber might rent movies and order pizza on Friday night because he and his kids had no idea there was a "dive in" movie taking place at the family aquatics center.
Finding ways to conserve energy can significantly reduce expenditures. However, when the economy has gone to pot, that's not the first line item Sangree would zero in on.
"In a typical recreational building, energy expenses account for 5 to 10 percent of the budget," he said. "That's a significant expense, but it's far less than labor. When you're trying to face hard economic times, you have to look at your labor costs and see if you can make cuts."
Leading up to its decision to reduce the Rec Pool's hours, UC Davis came to the conclusion that labor costs were consuming too much of the budget.
"The two major expenses to running a pool are heating costs and staffing costs. We had direct control over staffing costs, so we took a calculated look at how we could best serve our customers, while reducing the number of hours we were staffing the pool," Tolla said.
Reevaluating work schedules with respect to slow periods and peak periods usually reveals misjudgments in timing and opportunities for adjusting staffing levels and employees' work hours. Software programs are available to help optimize scheduling.
Insurance is another costly line item. "It's always worthwhile to be shopping around for better rates every couple of years," Sangree said.
While municipal recreation facilities don't pay real estate taxes, at privately owned facilities, property taxes generally account for 5 percent to 10 percent of the budget. However, tax rates sometimes are based on inflated property valuations, so it may be worthwhile to hire an appraiser and appeal the assessment if it's found to be too high.
Energy usage is an area where a few simple changes can result in major savings, and certain building upgrades and retrofits will reduce repair and maintenance costs, as well. Depending on how compliant employees are, energy costs can be pared down simply by encouraging them to do the same sorts of common-sense things they do at home to keep their utility bills in line, such as turning off lights when they leave a room, dressing warmly in winter to save on heating costs, and adjusting the blinds in their work areas to either block sunlight or let it in to naturally regulate temperature.
In addition, employees' computer monitors should be set to go into low-power "sleep mode" after a period of inactivity. A screen saver is not the same as sleep mode — monitors still use full power when the screen saver is active. There is software available that enables a local area network to automatically put to sleep monitors not actively being used.
At the end of the workday, computers and other equipment should be turned off and power strips unplugged, as power strips consume energy even when the equipment is off.
When it comes to energy conservation, "A lot of times, it's the little things that can add up to make a big difference," said James J. Winebrake, head of the science, technology and public policy department at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.
Winebrake directs the University-National Park Energy Partnership Program, which brings together university students and faculty with National Park Service employees to find ways to reduce energy use at national park facilities. He says there are three things facilities can do right away that feel like baby steps but actually go a long way toward saving energy and money: replacing light bulbs, installing motion sensors and programmable thermostats, and replacing old HVAC equipment.
"Take out high-energy incandescent bulbs and old fluorescents and replace them with compact fluorescents or high-efficiency fluorescents," he advised.
Then, boost lighting efficiency even more by installing motion sensors where appropriate so the lights automatically turn off when a room is unoccupied. The sensors cost $25 to $50 each, and they usually pay for themselves in less than a year by lowering energy bills, Winebrake said.
Programmable thermostats automatically turn the heater and air conditioner on or off according to a predetermined schedule that takes into account hours of operation and occupancy levels.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends a staged approach to building upgrades. Lighting comes early in the process because it has a significant impact on other building systems, especially to the extent that it affects heating and cooling loads.
Electrically powered equipment also affects cooling loads because with many types of equipment, much of the energy used to run it ultimately ends up in the surrounding space as heat. Appliances and office equipment can be cost-effectively upgraded with more efficient models that qualify for the EPA's Energy Star label. Qualifying products use 25 percent to 50 percent less energy than conventional equipment and typically cost about the same.
Energy Star-qualified new and rebuilt vending machines, for example, incorporate more efficient compressors, fan motors and light sources that can reduce energy use by 40 percent compared to standard models, according to the EPA. Onboard software puts the machines in low-energy lighting and refrigeration modes outside of normal business hours, which can cut energy use by another 20 percent.
Unfortunately, the Energy Star program does not rate electrically powered fitness machines such as treadmills and stair climbers, which are voracious energy eaters.
A staged approach to energy system upgrades will reduce cooling and heating loads, making it possible to replace existing HVAC systems with smaller equipment that uses less energy. Building simulation software is available to show how building systems affect one another.
The EPA's Energy Star Building Upgrade Manual, available online at www.energystar.gov, contains lighting recommendations for several specific types of structures, and while recreation centers are not among them, some of the information still applies. High-intensity fluorescent lamps are a good alternative for gymnasiums, where high-intensity discharge lamps, such as metal halide and high-pressure sodium lamps, are often used. High-intensity fluorescents may also perform well in auditorium-type spaces where the ceilings are higher than 15 feet.
The EPA also recommends that facilities use Energy Star-rated light-emitting diode (LED) exit signs, which can function a full 25 years without lamp replacement, compared with less than one year for an incandescent sign.
Likewise, LED scoreboards are preferable to their incandescent counterparts not just in terms of energy savings and maintenance requirements, but also because they withstand impacts better and can be seen from a wider range of vantage points because of their brightness and clarity. LED scoreboards cost more up front, but the operational savings can be substantial.
Athletic fields historically have been illuminated by incandescent and quartz lighting systems, but they are losing favor to metal halide lights that use less energy, last three times longer and reduce glare. Hillsborough County in Florida upgraded to metal halide lamps at 130 outdoor fields and courts in 2003 and in the first year alone saved $7.7 million in energy costs, plus maintenance savings, according to the EPA.
Saving money was not the main goal when the Chicago Park District began taking energy-conservation measures as part of the city's overall "greening" initiative. "Initially, the focus was on decreasing our carbon footprint," said Ellen Sargent, deputy director of natural resources.
But as it turned out, doing right by the planet paid off.
In the past year, simply by replacing electrical light fixtures with lower wattage versions in its indoor facilities, the district achieved an estimated savings of $55,700.
"People think it has to be a huge project—a huge, expensive overhaul—but you'd be surprised at how things add up if you just do what you can across as many buildings as possible," Sargent said.
The Chicago Park District also maintains a number of outdoor fields and courts with automated lighting controlled by timers or ambient light sensors. However, once winter arrives in the Windy City, a pickup game of basketball is probably the furthest thing from Joe the Plumber's mind. So there's no sense in illuminating outdoor spaces while our pal and his spouse are in full-on hibernation mode, warding off the cold with gas-log fires and mulled wine.
Realizing this, the park district made sure its outdoor lighting was "secured off" at 72 sites during the winter season. That one simple initiative, over a single year, prevented $279,936 from bleeding out of the budget.
Additionally, the district replaced outmoded boilers at 23 sites during the 2007-08 heating season for an estimated savings of $524,018, and it has begun installing solar panels at some facilities to heat swimming pools.
Aside from saving money, the park district's energy management program is furthering its mission to be a responsible steward of the environment and to educate people; where appropriate, signage is in place to point out and describe energy-saving features, which in turn serves to enhance the district's public image.
In a practice called "grasscycling," the Chicago Park District mows its 4,000 acres of turf so that the grass is no shorter than 3 inches. That, and the fact the clippings are left in place, slows growth by shading the roots. Meanwhile, grass clippings decompose and return valuable nutrients to the soil, thereby reducing or eliminating the need for fertilizer.
Grasscycling reduces labor costs and fossil fuel usage because lawns are mown less often and clippings aren't gathered and transported.
The Chicago Park District also came out with a campaign in defense of dandelions. In springtime, their presence in parks and on athletic fields caused people to complain that the lawns weren't being properly maintained.
"We're getting the word out that dandelions mean it's a healthy park because we're not spraying pesticides on the grass. We don't use pesticides on 90 percent of our property," Sargent said. "It's a lot healthier for a child to slide into third base on grass that hasn't been sprayed. We're also not spending money to purchase pesticides or using man hours to apply it."
Chicago's Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum took a number of creative and thrifty measures to shape up its budget before resorting to layoffs. The museum solicits donations of overripe bananas, mangoes and oranges from local produce markets to feed its butterflies.
As reported in the Chicago Tribune, museum officials also removed individual trash cans from employee work spaces for an annual savings of $2,500 in trash bags. Employees now use communal bins, which brought about the added benefit of making everyone more conscientious about recycling.
Whether it's buying fewer trash bags or learning to live with dandelions, parks and recreation managers are cutting costs wherever they can. Ideally, cuts should not be felt by our pal Joe or any other person who looks to parks and recreation programming and facilities as a means of maintaining a balanced and healthy lifestyle.
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