Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Mastering Revenue: Agencies Turn to Fees and Charges to Make Up for Shrinking General Funds

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Mastering Revenue: Agencies Turn to Fees and Charges to Make Up for Shrinking General Funds

Article excerpt

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TOM O'ROURKE, executive director of the Charleston County (South Carolina) Park & Recreation Commission, prides him self on running his department like a corporation. As he puts it, "This is no different from running a regular business, no different at all."

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In Denver, Colorado, Dody Erickson, interim manager of parks and recreation, sees her mission as providing as many services to as many people for as little cost as possible. While the system has sought to keep costs to users as low as possible, a budget gap has meant a recent restructuring of fees.

At a time when budgets are being severely crunched by governmental reductions, parks professionals are looking to fees and charges to sustain their agencies. While fees are nothing new, the topic has become top-of-mind because of the economic downturn. According to NRPA's 2010 survey on fees and charges, 98 percent of responding departments indicated they had a policy for fees and charges in place. Still, policies and approaches are as diverse as the cities and towns in which parks departments are located.

Revenue generation has become an even larger of the parks professional's job description. The are varied: forming partnerships and friends groups, obtaining corporate sponsorships, granting naming rights, and pursuing concession ventures (the latest rage being food trucks in parks).

This article explores the subject of fees paid directly for use and the issues arising from their application. What about those who can't afford to pay? Will agencies be able to effectively balance them with the services, and experiences for the public remain free? How to address nature centers, hissites, and cultural parks that don't tend to turn profit?

In a recent blog, Richard J. Dolesh, NRPA chief of public policy, described fees and charges as the hottest topic in parks and recreation. Directors must find new revenues, even though monies from private funding and public/private partnerships are limited. That's a slow route, as well. Which makes fees and charges a viable strategy. "The way parks agencies have addressed this is all over the lot," Dolesh wrote. "Some have simply jacked up existing fees."

Increasingly, "parks are being looked at as a business," Dolesh explained in a recent interview. "But we have to look at the real cost of losing these services. When a government cuts spending for afterschool programs, what happens to the crime rate and the cost of police services? Parks managers have to do a good job of explaining why fees are set as they are--and compare those fees to similar private sector services.

"It's becoming a pay-to-play issue," Dolesh says. "Those who can't pay are also the most under-served and have few other opportunities. Sometimes when waivers are sought, the process can be demeaning to the applicant."

The approach can also produce unintended consequences, as Tom Lovell, administrator for parks and recreation in Lee's Summit, Missouri, explains. "One concern is that if we start getting revenues the government will decide they won't have to support us at all, and their support is crucial."

A Matter of Locale

The approach to fees and charges often depends on the type of locale in which a parks department is located. Smaller and more affluent towns tend to be able to charge more. Urban areas seek to maintain their traditions of keeping parks and recreation as inexpensive as possible.

"In Lee's Summit, our demographics are such that we can operate off a fee-driven process in a lot of things we do, although we have to be very careful in what those things are," Lovell says. "We will not have pay toilets, parking charges, or coins in light poles as some have done."

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In Springfield, Missouri, the approach is to first look at how much tax money and special levies will be taken in. …

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