In our year-end edition of NRPA Parks Snapshot, we are looking at the challenges affecting park and recreation agencies as our nation continues to recover from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic — particularly those that impact funding, staffing and programming. We hope you find this information helpful as you make decisions at your agency. As always, continue following the guidance provided by your local and state governments and health officials, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Among the key findings from the November 30-December 10, 2021 survey:
Current and Future Budget
Park and recreation operating and capital expenditures budgets either match or are slightly larger relative to before the start of the pandemic. Forty-eight percent of survey respondents state their agencies’ current operating budget was the same as that prior to the pandemic. Thirty-two percent of agencies have larger operating budgets relative to the start of the pandemic (with a typical increase of about 5 percent), while 17 percent of agencies’ operating budgets have contracted (with a median decline of 5 percent).
A greater percentage of smaller metro and rural agencies have seen their operating budgets expand. Forty-four percent of small metro and rural park and recreation agencies indicate their current operating budget is larger than it was prior to the pandemic. Thirty-one percent of large metro and urban agencies report an increased operating budget.
More than half of park and recreation agencies’ capital expenditure budgets have held steady relative to the start of the pandemic. Thirty-two percent of survey respondents indicate that their agencies’ capital expenditure budgets have increased since the start of the pandemic (with a median increase of 7 percent), while 13 percent of agencies have seen a decline. There is little difference in capital expenditure budgets for agencies located in either large metro or small metro/rural locales.
Based on current indications (either by an already approved budget or by guidance from the mayor/city manager/council), most park and recreation leaders anticipate an increase in both their agencies’ operating and capital expenditure budgets. Fifty-nine percent of agencies will see greater operating budgets in the next fiscal year (with a median increase of 4 percent), while capital expenditure budgets will grow at 51 percent of agencies (with a typical gain of 7 percent). Respondents expect operating and capital expenditure budgets will hold steady at 35 percent and 37 percent of agencies, respectively.
The American Rescue Plan and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act
Forty-three percent of park and recreation agencies received funds from the American Rescue Plan. Among these agencies, one in four have spent those funds, while the remaining 75 percent have not spent all of the money. Forty-two percent of small metro and rural agencies and 45 percent of large metro and urban agencies have received funds from the American Rescue Plan.
Most agencies receiving funds through the American Rescue Plan took advantage of state and local fiscal recovery funds (90 percent of agencies). Additional programs agencies drew funding from include:
- Food and nutrition funding for youth or older adults (15 percent of agencies that received funding)
- Afterschool activity funding (13 percent)
- Travel, tourism and outdoor recreation grants (11 percent)
- Volunteer targeted funding (AmeriCorps and related programs) (5 percent)
Many park and recreation leaders report that their agencies also will benefit from the recently enacted Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (aka the “Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill”). Thirty-one percent of agency professionals anticipate receiving funds from this act. The anticipated projects that this bill will support include the development of a sports complex, multiple trail projects, gun violence prevention, and water and sewer upgrades.
Sixty-two percent of park and recreation agencies are currently budgeting for the same number of full-time employees (FTEs) as prior to the pandemic. A quarter of agencies have more full-time FTEs budgeted, while budgeted full-time staffing has contracted at 13 percent of agencies. Part-time employee numbers match pre-pandemic levels at 59 percent of agencies, but a greater percentage of agencies have decreased budgeted part-time staff (32 percent) than have increased them (10 percent). Similarly, three in five current agency budgets have this upcoming summer’s budgeted seasonal workers at pre-pandemic levels. While 15 percent of leaders will increase the number of seasonal workers this summer, 23 percent report that budgeted seasonal workers will decline at their agencies.
Even if budgets allow for steady or increased staffing levels, many agencies are seeing staffing decline (especially among part-timers) because of attrition and recruiting difficulties. Sixty percent of agencies’ current count of FTEs match pre-pandemic levels. Full-time employment has declined at 23 percent of agencies but has risen at 17 percent of agencies. Whereas current part-time staffing matches pre-pandemic levels at 49 percent of agencies, part-time staff are down at 43 percent of agencies. More than half of large metro and urban agencies currently have fewer part-timers on staff than before the pandemic.
Two in five park and recreation leaders indicate that their agencies are experiencing an increase in the number of employees quitting. Park and recreation leaders indicate higher wages and/or benefits as the number one reason employees quit their job (87 percent). Additional reasons include:
- Employees not comfortable working in a public-facing position due to the pandemic (44 percent)
- Need of the employee to care for a family member (e.g., childcare) (27 percent)
- Pandemic-related health challenges of the worker (21 percent)
- Unwilling to comply with agency rules on vaccination or mandatory testing (13 percent)
Of course, the work does not stop just because someone quits. Eighty-two percent of park and recreation leaders report that their agencies have increased the workload for remaining staff members, so agencies can continue delivering services to the community. Additional impacts include:
- Reducing programming (e.g., courses, festivals) (51 percent)
- Reprioritization of day-to-day operations (e.g., less frequent trash removal, grass mowing) (45 percent)
- Delaying implementation of major projects (37 percent)
- Shifting staff into unfilled, customer-facing positions (36 percent)
- Reducing/Eliminating afterschool programming (17 percent)
What’s Going On
Looking toward the holidays and into 2022, we are seeing parks and recreation move back toward normal (or at least “new normal”) programming offerings. In many cases, programming is at levels seen before the pandemic. In other situations, agency offerings are truncated. Agencies delivering full (“normal” level) offerings include:
- Summer youth sports leagues (91 percent)
- Spring youth sports leagues (88 percent)
- Summer childcare/camps (76 percent)
- 2022 summer pool season (76 percent)
- Winter youth sports leagues (73 percent)
- Holiday events/festivals (71 percent)
- Adult fitness classes (69 percent)
- Older adult programming (59 percent)
- Winter/Spring childcare/camps (59 percent)
In addition, here are highlights of the survey results from specific segments:
The full results of the survey include verbatim comments shared by park and recreation leaders across the nation on their agencies’ experiences in confronting COVID-19. This is an uncertain time with many unanswered questions, and we encourage you to continue the conversation with your colleagues about how your agency is confronting COVID-19 on NRPA Connect.
For more information and to see results from additional surveys, visit NRPA’s Parks Snapshot Surveys webpage.
For more information about NRPA’s response to COVID-19, as well as available resources for park and recreation professionals, please see our Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) webpage.
Kevin Roth (he/him) is vice president of research, evaluation and technology at NRPA.