One of the most reliable indicators of the level of public support for parks and recreation can be measured by how strongly people show their support when it counts the most—when they vote.
The good news in 2012 is that public support for local ballot measures and bond issues for parks and recreation was very high, especially considering the general state of the economy and fears of the approaching “fiscal cliff.” Early analysis of selected bond issues and ballot initiatives from cities, states, and urban counties in the 2012 election showed exceptionally strong support overall for parks, recreation, and conservation.
The Trust for Public Land which tracks ballot measures and bond issues for land conservation through its LandVote program (www.LandVote.org) reported that of 57 measures on local and statewide ballots, 46 passed at an average approval rate of 81 percent, including 3 of 3 statewide measures, one of the highest rates of passage in the past 10 years.
These land conservation measures which were placed on the ballot in 21 states and a number of cities and counties will provide more than $2 billion overall, including $767 million in new money to support protection of water quality, new parks and natural areas, and protection of working conservation landscapes including privately owned farms and ranches.
For bond issues for park land acquisition, development and construction of recreation facilities, and general operating support for parks and recreation, the rates of passage were almost as high. Among the highlights of some selected NRPA member agencies and states:
Mesa, AZ -- Passed a $70 million Parks and Recreation bond issue at 59 percent for and 41 percent against. Director of Parks and Recreation Marc Heirshberg noted that while the margin of passage may not have appeared significant, “59 percent favorable on a secondary property tax increase is a huge victory for us,” he said. This is especially true “in a City that does not have a primary property tax, as voters have continually rejected that notion, and [which]relies primarily on sales tax.”
Houston, TX – Passed a bond issue for $166 million which will allow for a $100 million private match for the multi-jurisdictional Bayou Greenway Initiative, a $200 million project to build and complete trails along seven of Houston’s Bayous (natural stream and wetland drainage systems). The vote was 68 percent for and 32 percent against. The Houston Chronicle editorialized: “With $166 million designated for parks and bayous, existing parks will get the new and repaired pools, recreation centers, playgrounds and sports fields they need. A full $100 million will be used to create 150 miles of connected trails and linear parks along Houston's bayous as part of the Bayou Greenway Initiative. This will be more than doubled because the private sector, led by the Houston Parks Board, will provide an additional $105 million of matching funds toward this transformational project.
As a result of this bond, improved bayous will reduce flooding, our air and water will be cleaner and our economic development will be accelerated. Residents will have quick access to outdoor places to walk, ride bikes, jog and relax - and we all know the physical and mental health benefits that come with these activities. And talented, educated young people will find Houston a much more appealing place to work and live.”
Austin, TX – Voters passed a Parks and Recreation Bond for 77 million, voting 59 percent for, 41 percent against.
El Paso, TX – Voters approved Proposition 1, a $245 million bond issue for Parks, Recreation and Open Space ($195M) and the city Zoo ($50M) at 75 percent voter approval.
San Francisco, CA – Passed Proposition B, the Clean and Safe Neighborhood Parks Bond. Prop B was for $195 million in bonds for neighborhood parks, playgrounds, pools, the Golden Gate Park, and acquisition of waterfront open space. By city charter, Propositions such as this require two-thirds voter approval rate (67 percent) to pass. “We are thrilled,” said Phil Ginsburg, director of parks and recreation.
A snapshot of how parks and conservation initiatives in some selected smaller localities and states includes:
Ohio – A snapshot of levies and ballot initiatives from towns and park districts in Ohio shows that initiatives for capital funding such as land acquisition, and capital construction passed at an exceptionally high rate with 7 of 8 gaining voter approval. Levies for continuing current operating expenses or other ‘recreational purposes’ did not fare as well, although they did pass at a rate exceeding 50 percent (17 of 27 passed).
New Jersey – In New Jersey, voters approved 7 of 9 local measures to renew or establish open space trust funds just one week after the state was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, with many residents still without power and dealing with the aftermath of the storm. The measures include five in Bergen County, creating a new open space trust fund in East Orange (80 percent support), and continuation of the open space trust fund in the recently consolidated Princeton Township and Borough (77 percent support). Bill Foelsch of Morris Township, NJ, said, “This speaks to the continued strong support of New Jersey voters for protecting land, water, parks and historic sites, even in very difficult circumstances.”
Richard J. Dolesh is NRPA’s Vice President for Conservation and Parks.