What Drives Public Officials' Budget Priorities?

October 5, 2017, Department, by Kevin Roth, Ph.D.

2017 October Research What Drives Public Officials Budget Priorities 410

The August issue of Parks & Recreation magazine featured the results of a study conducted by Pennsylvania State University researchers that queried appointed and elected government officials’ views in Pennsylvania about their state’s park and recreation service offerings. The authors (Drs. Andrew Mowen, Austin Barrett and Alan Graefe) reported that Pennsylvania’s local officials agree that park and recreation services provide a “moderately high level” of benefit for their local communities. These benefits take the form of positive youth development, a sense of community, promoting health, economic prosperity, resource conservation and social equity.

Most park and recreation agencies rely heavily on tax dollars to deliver their services to the public, so how public officials view parks and recreation is important. The problem is that local government budgets remain strained following the last recession. Putting additional pressure on park and recreation agencies is the fact that they must compete for these finite dollars with other local government-provided services, such as public safety, education and transportation. In this competitive environment, many park and recreation agencies are suffering from stagnant or declining budgets.

Having a better understanding of what drives public officials’ budget priorities can help arm park and recreation professionals with the tools needed to get greater and more stable funding. With this in mind, NRPA commissioned Drs. Mowen, Barrett and Greafe to conduct a nationwide study of local government elected and appointed officials. A total of 810 officials, from all 50 states, responded to the survey conducted during spring 2017.

The good news from the survey is that local government officials are heavy park users and firm believers in the many services and benefits that parks and recreation brings to their communities. This includes:

  • An overwhelming majority of local government officials (95 percent) report that they personally use their local park areas
  • Virtually all local government officials (99 percent) agree that their local communities benefit from local park areas

Public officials’ support for parks and recreation is solid across our nation — coming from government officials serving urban, suburban and rural jurisdictions — with strong support from those who identify themselves as either a Democrat or a Republican.

All communities have issues that citizens expect their local governments to address. Public officials rely on their local park and recreation agencies to serve as a critical solution provider for many of their top concerns. Parks and recreation is seen by local officials as providing a valuable contribution to preventing youth crime and enhancing the community’s quality of life.

But, on some other issues, there is a great opportunity for parks and recreation to narrow the gap between what officials expect and what their agency is delivering to the community. Most notably, the issue that is top of mind for local government officials — attracting and retaining businesses — is an area where parks and recreation is far less likely to be viewed as making a strong, positive contribution.

Public officials’ perception that parks and recreation does not make a big contribution to the community’s economic development efforts means that they place only a moderate level of importance on parks and recreation relative to other typically provided local government services. Specifically, local government officials place parks and recreation only sixth among 10 widely offered local government services. The following rank higher than parks and recreation in terms of importance:

  1. Education
  2. Police protection
  3. Fire protection
  4. Hospitals/Health
  5. Transportation

The lessened level of importance that public officials place on parks and recreation relative to other local government provided services has a significant impact on the level and stability of funding they provide to their local park and recreation agencies. While a resounding 83 percent of local government officials agree that park and recreation services are worth the amount of tax dollars expended on them each year, only a third of officials claim their local governments place a high or an essential priority on funding these services.

This means many locales see park and recreation funding as being more discretionary than other local government provided services. On the positive side, park and recreation agencies benefit when the local government enjoys a greater budget largess. When presented with a hypothetical increase in the local government’s budget, local government officials indicate they would allocate an average 14.8 percent of these extra revenues to their park and recreation agency. Only transportation, education and police protection would receive a larger percentage of the increased budget dollars.

But, the story is far less sanguine when local governments face a cut in tax revenues. In this scenario, local government officials indicate they would cut the park and recreation budget to the equivalent of 15.2 percent of the overall local government budget cut. This is the largest funding cut of any of the widely provided local government services.

But not all government officials view park and recreation funding as an optional choice. Officials who believe park and recreation services contribute solutions to key community issues are more likely to believe these services are important and are more likely to provide the agencies with greater and more steady funding. The results highlight the need to elevate local officials’ perception of the importance of parks and recreation to the vitality of their town, city, county or region. To make this happen, park and recreation advocates must continue to communicate how these services are a solution to the issues confronting their communities.

Most notably, the survey highlights the need to close the gap in public officials’ perceptions of how parks and recreation can drive economic development, and more specifically, to attract and retain business. Anecdotally, we know that parks and recreation is one of the reasons businesses and young professionals choose to relocate to communities. When deciding where to locate, business leaders seek out parks, trails and open spaces because they contribute to community livability and quality of life. Identifying opportunities for parks and recreation to participate in a community’s efforts to attract and retain businesses could be an effective way to increase its stature in the eyes of local government officials. But we need harder data to more effectively make this case.

To this end, NRPA has commissioned Dr. Terry Clower at George Mason University both to update the Economic Value of Local Parks study and conduct a new research project that will enumerate how parks and recreation is an economic development tool for the community. Keep an eye out for these resources in 2018.

Kevin Roth, Ph.D., is NRPA’s Vice President of Research