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Stretching Small Town Budgets

by Nathan A. Schaumleffel, MS, CPRP, Deborah A. Smith, PhD, and Irma O'Dell, PhD

Over the last thirty years, the romanticized ideal of small town living in the United States has become tarnished. Lack of job opportunities has caused a decrease in rural and small town populations and an increase in poverty. The ability of small towns to support adequate public service delivery systems has eroded due to the increasing loss of local schools, churches and other community-based organizations. To address quality of life issues and combat the lack of recreation opportunities in small towns, public recreation agencies in these communities have attempted to identify ways to deliver affordable, year-round leisure services to residents. Our recent study of small communities in Illinois shows that perceived funding decreases and lack of recreation opportunities in small towns have prompted administrators, commissioners, citizen committees and village and city boards to identify and implement a wide range of management strategies to maintain and even increase leisure services in small communities.

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Our study defined small town public recreation agencies as park districts or divisions of municipal governments that provide leisure services for communities with populations between 2,500 and 10,000. This definition allowed for larger rural communities and smaller suburban communities to be included in the research. The research team sent surveys to directors, park board presidents or knowledgeable individuals from 207 communities. Thirty completed the questionnaire for a response rate of 14.5 percent. The high non-response rate was partly expected because the survey was complex and time consuming. Furthermore, many small towns simply did not have the requested budget information available for the years we studied: fiscal years 1996 through 2000. The research study guaranteed confidentiality to research participants, so specific agency names and personnel are not identified in this article.

Generating Revenue to Expand Small Town Budgets

The most prevalent tactic used by Illinois small towns to stretch an agency's budget was to raise alternative revenue through a number of means, including:

Increasing the number of bond issues
Seeking donations and gifts
Soliciting sponsorships
Using entrepreneurial management approaches
Securing grants
Increasing tax levies

Implementing such new policies as park exaction fees were also used. The most frequently used management strategies involved fee generation, continuance of user fees, increasing fees or initiating new user fees. This study found that some communities also implemented user fees to pay debt service on revenue bonds for new revenue-generating facilities such as golf courses and swimming pools.

Grants for Small Town Park and Recreation Agencies

Many small towns lack the expertise and resources to complete the often voluminous applications and paperwork to secure grants. Some agencies in this study applied and received Illinois Department of Natural Resources grants and Illinois Department of Transportation grants. However these are matching grant programs, and most small town agencies do not have the funds available to be matched. This has been a severe problem in generating revenue from grants for small town public recreation agencies. A lack of cash on hand to fund capital projects has hampered many small town public recreation agencies' chances of being awarded the multiple-year matching grants that would give the agencies significant budget increases.

In some situations, village officials and commissioners of small town park districts have collaborated with organizations and agencies that compliment the field of recreation and parks and compliment the public recreation agency's mission. Typical collaborators include school districts, public housing authorities, YMCAs, civic and service organizations, health agencies, community development corporations, public safety and other social service agencies. Grants prepared in collaboration allow multiple agencies to work together by combining their resources, which then allows matching grants to be attainable.

Exaction

According to the study, exactions (which in Illinois often take the form of land-cash donation ordinances) are another means of raising revenue. A team of researchers led by Ronald A. Kaiser defined exaction as "a municipal requirement imposed on a subdivision developer or builder mandating that they dedicate park land or pay a fee to be used by the municipality to acquire and develop park and recreation facilities."

Three main types of park exactions exist:

1. Fees in lieu of land,
2. Impact fees, and
3. Land dedications.

Park exactions can be an excellent source to raise additional revenue for small town agencies. Many small towns and rural communities, such as St. Joseph, Illinois in Champaign County or Waterloo, Illinois in Monroe County, have become bedroom communities for metropolitan areas. Many St. Joseph residents work in the nearby cities of Champaign-Urbana and Waterloo residents commute to St. Louis. The growth of urban areas, bedroom communities and small towns has spurred increased development in the areas of housing and transportation, and provided an environment conducive to exploring park exaction opportunities.

Sponsorships

Some small agencies are generating revenue through sponsorships. One type of sponsorship that agencies have implemented is a buy-a-tree program. In these programs, an individual spends $250 for a tree. One hundred twenty-five dollars of this amount covers the cost of the tree and the additional $125 is a donation to the park fund. Other agencies have sought advertising sponsorships in their seasonal program brochures, which helps cover the costs of printing and postage. One small town agency in the study developed a park district foundation.

In some communities, fiscal resources for parks and recreation are so sparse, even in small communities that have park districts, that civic groups hold craft fairs, garage sales and pancake breakfasts to raise money to fund needed park improvement projects, such as picnic shelters and playground equipment.

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Management Strategies to Maintain and Increase Service Delivery

Common management strategies to maintain and increase service delivery can be used to stretch small town budgets successfully. The existing academic literature indicates that the most common strategies to stretch an agency's budget are:

Reducing hours of operation,
Closing facilities,
Cutting temporary and permanent employees,
Eliminating programs,
Conducting joint ventures with other agencies,
Postponing spending,
Transferring services to the private sector,
Initiating or increasing the use of volunteers,
Reducing maintenance, and
Cycling maintenance projects.

Our research on small town public recreation agencies in Illinois revealed that service providers regularly implement these strategies, especially in the area of using volunteers. Many small communities rely on volunteer labor that may range from Eagle Scout projects to improve park sites to citizen committees that run special events.

Few of the directors that responded to our survey had eliminated existing programs or shortened facility hours; however, many agencies had contracted out some tasks, such as concession stands and lawn care, to the private sector to more efficiently provide public services. Other public recreation agencies contracted out to the private sector pool management tasks, restroom services and sports medicine services in public fitness centers.

Several professionals who participated in our study shared four more creative strategies to stretch an agency's budget to maintain and increase services. They include:

1. Using collaborative and interagency agreements,
2. Using pro-active administrative techniques,
3. Rethinking operating methods, and
4. Making each individual program offering cost effective.

Using Collaborative and Interagency Agreements

Collaborative and interagency agreements were frequently used strategies to deliver public leisure services. One small town professional regularly initiates cooperative agreements with two other agencies to economize the cost of trips, transportation and programs. Another professional mentioned that cooperative programming between multiple agencies was an excellent strategy to maximize program offerings without wasting money on the duplication of services already offered

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by a different agency. Some small town agencies have been involved in cooperative purchasing arrangements and intergovernmental agreements to share administrative expenses. Other strategies have included sharing personnel with other departments and collaborating with private and nonprofit sector organizations.

Using Pro-Active Admistrative Techniques

Some small towns that are fortunate enough to have a paid part-time or full-time professional have implemented administrative techniques to stretch the agencies' budgets. Administrative techniques that agencies in this study have implemented include: long-range planning to promote efficiency; the development of budget procedures to track revenues and expenses for all leisure service programs and facilities; and the production of a more professional brochure. Additionally, some public recreation agency directors have begun to ration recreation services by intentionally allocating resources, services and opportunities in response to a limited amount of resources.

Rethinking Operating Methods

Another area that surfaced as a place to save money was in park maintenance management and operations. One agency considered eliminating part-time staff and hiring full-time staff to maintain facilities year round. The goal of this effort was to save on repair costs by having someone responsible for preventative maintenance. Another agency actively shopped for lower utility costs by frequently changing providers. Instead of transferring services to the private sector, as suggested earlier, one public recreation agency, in hopes of lowering operating expenses, is trying to do more internally instead of using contractors. Other strategies include implementing an Adopt-A-Park program, buying better equipment to accomplish more work and borrowing equipment from other municipal departments.

Making Each Individual Program Offering Cost Effective

Some small towns are targeting their recreation programs as a place to be more financially effective. One respondent said the agency was increasing class sizes while reducing the number of classes per session in order to minimize expense and maximize revenue. Another agency facilitates more programs for residents, instead of direct service delivery, which places the public recreation agency in the role of community organizer.

Operating Cost-Effective Organizations by Designing Efficient Organizations

A final strategy for stretching an agency's budget is to find the most effective and efficient organizational design and administrative housing for the agency. Sometimes that organizational design has itself become part of a fiscal management strategy to maintain or increase program services or facilities.

Although a city parks and recreation department is the most common organizational design for administering park and recreation services nationwide, many times small town public recreation agencies are not constituted as a typical village or city park and recreation department or as a park district. Public leisure services offered through a village or city government in small towns are also administered through just parks departments, recreation departments, park committees and boards, public works departments, streets departments and streets and parks departments.

Furthermore, many small towns only provide a park that is equipped with such facilities as sports fields, pavilions, playgrounds and picnic areas. These small towns offer no recreation

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programming. Recreation programming and leisure services are administered at the park by local non-profit and civic organizations, such as sport leagues, day camps and club teams.

One small town created a park district with the same corporate boundaries as the village. The park district owned no parkland and was only responsible for recreation programming. The village government owned the park land and had a parks department, which was responsible for the operations and maintenance of the park and facilities. In other cases, several small towns in close geographic proximity of one another formed one park district that would serve several small towns. Many communities, and especially their elected village leaders, are reluctant to form a park district for fear of losing power and control of village resources.

Some small towns do not have a central park and recreation agency. In these cases, the small towns offer leisure services through the municipalities, but the leisure services are independent of one and another. For example, one small town has a golf course, swimming pool, and park; however, no person is the overall director of all three leisure services. The three services have separate funds and are viewed as separate entities with no common mission.

What Works

Based on the findings of this study, managers in small town public recreation agencies in Illinois should continue to generate alternative revenue through common and creative strategies. However, public recreation professionals should cautiously implement user fees since these fees can constrain marginalized residents from accessing public leisure services. Organizing and mobilizing community assets and civic groups may dramatically assist in providing a wider variety of programs and services to the community. Active pursuit of collaborations with other agencies, especially public safety and health agencies and non-profit organizations, will allow public recreation agencies to offer more direct and indirect programs. Park and recreation professionals who serve as catalysts of collaboration and facilitators for cooperative services can employ smaller staffs and still provide quality services to a community.

As we advance further into the 21st century, park and recreation professionals should continue to encourage local tax support by educating the community to the positive outcomes of park, recreation and leisure services; ensure service visibility; foster public involvement; build coalitions between related service providers and organizations; and develop public recognition for leisure services, because these are essential tasks for developing the broad financial support that will ensure the continuation of recreation services in small towns.

Nathan A. Schaumleffel, MS, CPRP is a doctoral student in the Department of Leisure Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He also serves as Project Manager of the Illinois Rural Recreation Development Project (IRRDP).

Deborah A. Smith, PhD is an associate professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at Southern Connecticut State University.

Irma O'Dell, PhD is on associate professor in the Office of Educational Innovation and Evaluation at Kansas State University.

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