Hardly a week passes that I am not completing a survey instrument concerning some facet of municipal government (this past week, for example, the survey concerned natural gas pipeline safety in the community). Generally speaking, if the survey respondent completes the survey instrument and checks the appropriate box, once the results have been compiled, a report detailing the findings of the survey is forwarded.
As a result, nearly every week I receive the results of a survey to which I may have responded more than a year before, and perhaps even forgot about. Such reports usually range between 10 to 200 pages in length.
Almost all of the completed reports arrive via the internet. If after reading them, I ascertain the findings contain information that I know will prove invaluable in the future, I save them electronically. Occasionally I print a hard copy for ‘bedtime reading’ (especially those that are particularly lengthy.)
I recently received such a study entitled Local Government Officials Perceptions of Parks and Recreation. In today’s column, I want to share some of that information. The entire study can be found online (www.nrpa.org).
Conducted by the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), the study begins with this premise: “Parks and recreation is predominantly a service provided by local governments and therefore is reliant on financial support from local governments’ general tax funds. However, local governments fund and manage a variety of different public services, including, but not limited to, police protection, fire protection, transportation, education, public welfare and parks and recreation. Typically, these public services must vie for funding from the same limited pool of tax revenues. In the face of this competitive environment, many park and recreation agencies throughout the United States suffer from stagnant or declining budget allocations, despite the solid support for their offerings and services from Americans.”
“Due to the crucial role elected and appointed officials play in determining public expenditures, it is important for the park and recreation profession to understand how local government officials view and prioritize these services,” the study continues. “To this end, NRPA partnered with Penn State researchers Dr. Andrew Mowen, Dr. Austin Barrett and Dr. Alan Graefe to conduct a nationwide study of local government elected and appointed officials. A total of 810 officials, from all 50 states, responded to the survey conducted during the spring of 2017.”
The study made a number of findings. The researchers concluded that: “Local government officials are heavy park users and are firm believers in the great benefits that parks and recreational programming brings to their community. This includes: nearly all local government officials (99 percent) agree that their local communities benefit from local park areas; and, local government officials nearly unanimously (98 percent) agree that recreation services provide benefit to their communities.”
“Public officials also see park and recreation as a critical solution provider for many of their top concerns, including preventing youth crime and enhancing quality of life,” the study continues. “But they do not perceive agencies as an important contributor to their biggest day-to-day concern: economic development.”
“Thus, while most local government officials agree that park and recreation is well worth the dollars spent on it, they admit that no other local government provided service would have to bare the largest funding cut when the local government must cut back on spending. This study highlights both a widespread appreciation and support of park and recreation services. But, the findings also underscore a sober reminder of the significant challenge that park and recreation agencies face in competing for needed budget dollars,” the study concludes.
The study also reported that “Americans are both regular users and strong believers in what local parks and recreation brings to the local community. Seven in 10 Americans regularly go to their local parks, 83 percent report that they personally benefit from local parks and 92 percent agree that their communities benefit from local parks.”
In fact, the study in many respects reflects what has occurred in Sidney. According to NRPA Park Metrics and the 2017 Agency Performance Review, local governments typically spend $76 per resident annually on park and recreation services. Interestingly, in Sidney, we spend slightly less. For example, in 2017, we spent $68.08 per resident, just slightly less than in 2009, when we spent $69.10 per resident.
I would also point out that when the full impact of the Great Recession hit Sidney in 2009, Council was forced to make deep budget cuts to adjust for the loss of income tax revenue as well as the simultaneous cuts made by the Ohio General Assembly (readers will remember that the state legislators cut in half the local government funds — funds, I might add, that were first put in place to help local governments in Ohio survive the Great Depression.)
While Sidney did make cuts to our parks and recreation programs as a result of the Great Recession, we actually spent more over the course of the five-year period that followed. More government double-talk, you might ask? Absolutely not!
We were able to overcome the cuts because Shelby County’s two largest employers (Emerson and Honda) provided grants that enabled us to replace worn play equipment that would have been removed from their respective parks and not replaced. So while the parks and recreation budget did see severe cuts, we did recognize the importance of parks, as did our corporate partners, allowing us to maintain equipment and programming at a time when, because of high unemployment, there was an even greater demand for park usage from residents and visitors.
I’ve said it before and I’ll likely say it again and again, Sidney is fortunate to have had the foresighted leadership that understood the importance that parks can and do play. I’ve had the opportunity to visit many of Ohio’s cities. I have not found another city the size of Sidney that has a neighborhood park within walking distance of nearly every resident and certainly not another city the size of Sidney that has a park that can come close to rivaling the crown jewel of Sidney’s park system — Tawawa Park. We continue to be fortunate to have partners like Emerson and Honda — responsible corporate partners who understand the vital role parks and recreational programming play in the community.
The writer is the mayor of Sidney.