Lessons from the 2004 State and Local Elections

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Election results show both positive and negative trends for parks and recreation nationwide.

The outcome of the November elections was generally positive for parks and recreation across the United States, with a few notable exceptions as a state and local analysis of the results indicates. National trends for local park and recreation ballot measures have shown continuing support for this core public service. While not ranking as high as public safety, voters at the local, regional and state levels do support park and recreation services and programs as a priority. Also, voters continue to show support for open space protection and land conservation.

As reported by the non-profit Trust for Public Land (www.landvote.org), more than 76 percent of state and local ballot measures to acquire land for parks or to protect open space were successful. This is similar to a passage rate of 79 percent in 2003, and consistent with passage rates in the high 70s for the last six years. Such strong totals indicate that despite extreme competition for local and state funds from a diminishing base of tax-supported revenues, citizens across America solidly support open space protection and land conservation regardless of party lines.

In the 2004 elections, 111 of 147 local and state ballot measures that dedicated public funds for parks and open space protection passed in 25 states. Interestingly, it did not matter if the states were "blue" or "red" when analyzing the percentage of voters in favor of such conservation and open space protection spending.

Just four states, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan and New Jersey, accounted for more than half of the total number of ballot measures that offered matching funds to local governments. Eleanor Warmack, executive director of Florida Recreation and Park Association, reports that all her proposed local bond measures passed. "In the last five years, it has become easier to pass such bond issues because of the strong public support for them," she says, adding that the state has had two separate billion dollar land acquisition programs. Preservation 2000 (1990-2000), and the most recent, Florida Forever (2000-2010) in which there was "overwhelming support" for each of the 10-year bond issues, and that the support for land conservation and open space continues.

One important ballot measure in Gainesvillc, FIa., would have raised the local sales tax by one penny to pay for improvements to the area's park and recreational facilities and to fix local roads. It failed by a narrow margin, and may have been partially due to a lack of public awareness, but it failed nonetheless.

In other bellwether states such as Ohio, several large metropolitan areas passed bond issues that included parks and recreation funding. The city of Columbus, for example, had five bond issues up for a vote including streets, sewers and other public facilities, and the park and recreation bond issue passed with 74 percent approval. Ohio also has a comprehensive statewide land conservation program named the Clean Ohio Fund, which intends to fund more than $400 million in land conservation, parks and recreation spending. The Clean Ohio Fund originally passed with 63 percent voter approval in 2001 and currently enjoys broad public support. Governor Bob Taft has recently committed to fully funding the third round of the program with $100 million, including $50 million for open space protection and $50 million for brownfields clean-up with a green space component.

Michelle Park, executive director of Ohio Park and Recreation Association, says that the entire funding structure for local park and recreation operations comes up for voter re-approval every 10 years, and in two of the largest Ohio park systems-Cleveland Metroparks and Lake County Metroparks-these operating levies did very well, passing with "high 50s" and "60-percent range" respectively. …