Local Officials' Opinions About Local Park and Recreation Services

August 1, 2017, Feature, by By Austin G. Barrett, M.S., and Andrew J. Mowen, Ph.D.

2017 August Feature Local Officials Opinions About Local Park and Recreation Services 410

It’s safe to say this past presidential election has been unlike any other in recent memory. Wall-to-wall coverage of political rallies, debates and even candidates’ tweets permeated every layer of the American consciousness. Largely missing from this presidential preoccupation was the critical importance of electing officials charged with leading local governments (i.e., council members, commissioners, mayors). As the saying goes, policy decisions made at the local level often have the most direct impact on a citizen’s life.

The business of local government, however, is not only carried out by elected officials, but also by those who are appointed or hired to fulfill specific jobs or duties. Common appointed officials within local governments include town or city managers, county administrators and department or division chiefs. Together, local elected and appointed officials are the individuals most responsible for setting policy and distributing revenues to a variety of public services. Quite often, local officials are required to make difficult fiscal trade-offs when drafting and approving municipal budgets.

As John L. Crompton, distinguished professor of Recreation, Park and Tourism at Texas A&M University, argued, for park and recreation services to be prioritized in the local government budgetary process, they must be perceived by decision makers as an essential service that addresses critical problems facing communities. If park and recreation services are not viewed as a potential solution to community problems, they run the risk of being viewed as “nice to have if they can be afforded.” This predicament is particularly troubling when local governments experience fiscal stress (i.e., a decline in revenues or a shrinking tax base). Emerging evidence indicates during times of economic stress, local government investments in park and recreation services decline disproportionately to other governmental services. 

Given the influence local officials wield in shaping and approving municipal budgets, there is remarkably little scientific evidence concerning their opinions regarding local park and recreation services. To our knowledge, only one research project has broached this topic systematically. In a 2002 survey of California governmental officials, the California Department of Parks and Recreation Planning Division found governmental leaders possessed generally positive opinions about park and recreation services. In particular, leaders agreed park and recreation services were valued by their residents because they provide safe, wholesome and fun activities for families. Leaders also strongly believed park and recreation areas increase the value of residential and commercial property values. However, many questions remain: Do local officials believe parks and recreation provide benefits that address critical community needs? What level of priority do these officials place on park and recreation investment (of both facilities and other funding priorities)? Finally, do elected and appointed officials value and prioritize park and recreation services differently?

A Pennsylvania Perspective

In 2014, we conducted a study to address these questions for Pennsylvania. Working in cooperation with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, as well as four state-level professional associations, an online survey was distributed to a diverse sample of appointed and elected local officials throughout the state. In total, 489 appointed officials and 414 elected officials participated in the study. Among appointed officials, the vast majority were township, borough or city managers/secretaries (97 percent). The remaining 3 percent were county chief clerks/administrators. Borough council members accounted for the majority (55 percent) of elected officials, followed by township supervisors/commissioners (21 percent), mayors (11 percent), city council members (7 percent) and county commissioners (6 percent). The majority of officials classified their communities as rural (53.5 percent) and served a population of less than 5,000 residents (62 percent). Based on this predominantly rural sample, it was not surprising that three quarters of officials stated their local government owned less than four parks.

We first asked about the benefits local officials’ believed park and recreation services provide in their community. Collectively, both elected and appointed officials believed that park and recreation services provided a moderately high degree of benefit to their local communities; 10 of the 12 survey benefit items rated above a three on the five-point scale (Table 1). The benefits perceived as most frequently delivered were “provides children with a safe place to play” (Mean=4.06) and “makes the community a more desirable place to live” (Mean=3.91). Officials were less likely to believe their local park and recreation services provided benefits, such as “helps attract new residents and businesses” (Mean=3.10), “preserves historical and cultural heritage” (Mean=2.98), and “helps reduce crime” (Mean=2.73).

Comparisons were then made based on type of official (i.e., elected vs. appointed). For all 12 benefit items, elected officials believed park and recreation services provided a significantly higher level of benefit than appointed officials (Table 1). These differences were particularly pronounced for the following benefit items: “reduces stress/improves mental health,” “preserves historical and cultural heritage,” “provides equitable and accessible recreation opportunities to a broad constituency,” and “helps reduce crime.”

Next, we asked officials about the level of importance they placed on funding specific recreation and conservation initiatives or priorities. There was strong agreement among appointed and elected officials about the importance of maintaining existing park and recreation areas (Table 2). Not only did maintenance receive the highest overall mean score (4.30), but there also was no significant difference between the two types of officials. Providing programs at park and recreation areas was viewed as moderately important by all officials (Mean=3.42), with elected officials being more prone to prioritize programming than appointed officials. Both types of officials placed less importance on land acquisition for open space protection (Overall Mean=2.80) and for developed recreation (Mean=2.37). While there was no difference between appointed and elected officials in importance placed on land acquisition for open space, elected officials placed a significantly higher level of importance on acquisition of land/water for developed recreation.

Finally, we asked officials about their level of priority for investing in specific types of recreation facilities over the next five years. We found that investing in playgrounds received the highest level of priority from local officials (Mean=3.55; Table 3). Next, neighborhood parks and community or regional parks received moderate investment priority scores (Mean=3.19 and 3.00, respectively). Community or regional trail systems (Mean=2.85), as well as developed recreation areas, such as team sports facilities (Mean=2.95) and especially swimming pools (M=1.94), received lower levels of priority. When we compared facility investment priorities based on type of official, we found elected officials prioritized investment in nearly all of these facilities at a higher level than appointed officials (except community or regional trail systems). In particular, elected officials placed much more priority on community recreation areas such as team sports facilities and swimming pools.

Implications

This is one of few studies that not only assessed local officials’ views on parks and recreation, but also compared and contrasted the views of elected and appointed officials. What we found was that local officials believe that park and recreation services provide a moderately high level of benefit for their local communities. Local officials agreed these benefits were numerous, including positive youth development, a sense of community, promoting health, economic prosperity, resource conservation and social equity. Our findings suggest that local officials do not merely view park and recreation services as “fun and games,” but believe they offer a high level of benefit for their communities.

The survey also highlights the central importance or priority that both elected and appointed officials placed on maintaining existing park and recreation areas (taking care of what they have). Large capital investments may grab headlines, but officials preferred funding to be directed toward maintaining facilities their local government already operate. Playgrounds, emblematic of local parks and recreation, were also prioritized by officials over and above other specific facility investments. This prioritization corresponds with the previously identified perception that parks provided a high level of benefit for local youth.

Other than providing a snapshot of how local officials view and prioritize investment in parks and recreation, a major finding from this survey was the differences that existed between elected and appointed officials. For nearly every question, elected officials responded significantly more positively than appointed officials toward park and recreation services. Why would this be? One explanation is elected officials may be more apt to paint a rosier picture than appointed officials. While elected officials can readily espouse the benefits of a widely valued public service and advocate noble intentions to invest in these services, appointed officials are directly faced with the difficult realities of providing a variety of public services on tight municipal budgets. Another explanation could be that elected officials are more in tune with the values of their community than appointed officials. Therefore, they may hold park and recreation services in a higher regard because they recognize how their community is enhanced by these services.

As Crompton has pointed out, communicating the value of local park and recreation services to elected officials should continue to be a priority for the profession. These findings, however, suggest that park and recreation advocates should also focus their education and advocacy efforts on appointed officials.

As a public service, dependent on the support of local officials, parks and recreation should devote more resources toward understanding and engaging local officials. NRPA has done just that, and in a future issue of Parks & Recreation, will convey the results of a national study of local government officials’ view on park and recreation services.

 

Note: The authors wish to thank Diane Kripas of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources for her contributions to this study. Detailed references for this article can be found here.

Austin G. Barrett, M.S., is a Ph.D. candidate at Pennsylvania State University’s department of recreation, park and tourism management. Andrew J. Mowen, Ph.D., is a professor at Pennsylvania State University’s department of recreation, park and tourism management.