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Park and recreation leaders have shared with us in one-on-one conversations, exchanges on NRPA Connect and their NRPA Parks Snapshot survey responses over the past year about the detrimental financial impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and subsequent recession. Local and state governments, suffering from falling tax receipts and rising expenses resulting from their pandemic response, have squeezed budgets that have led to cuts in services.
Half of the park and recreation agencies that responded to the December Parks Snapshot survey indicated that they had reduced their previously budgeted 2021 operating spending, with a median reduction of 20 percent.
The cuts have gone beyond those made to operations budgets. Among the most common budget cut strategies cited by respondents to a mid-April 2020 Parks Snapshot Survey focused on capital budgets. These included deferring or canceling capital projects and ramping down or deferring maintenance projects.
A third of park and recreation leaders indicated in the December Parks Snapshot survey that they had reduced 2021 capital budgets in response to the current financial challenges. Thirty-six percent of agencies located in large metropolitan areas were pulling back on capital spending, compared to 30 percent of agencies located in small metropolitan and rural areas. The typical agency slashed its capital budgets by 37 percent, with 1 in 6 agencies cutting capital expenditures by at least half.
At first glance, it appears that capital spending at local park and recreation agencies may be holding firm so far — but the keywords are “so far.” Per the U.S. Census Bureau, public-sector construction spending on parks/camps, neighborhood centers, social centers and sports facilities totaled $10.288 billion during the first 10 months of 2020. This was up a robust inflation-
adjusted 8.8 percent over public-sector spending during the same months in 2019.
History, however, suggests that capital spending trends tend to lag major financial events. Consider the years surrounding the Great Recession. In 2007, public-sector construction spending on parks/camps, neighborhood centers, social centers and sports facilities amounted to $8.591 billion. Spending rose an inflation-adjusted 6.4 percent during the first year of the recession in 2008 and suffered only a relatively modest 0.9 percent slip in 2009. But the story changed quickly after that with two consecutive years of spending declines (-11.9 percent in 2010 and another -17.6 in 2011). Construction spending did not recover until 2017.
There is a tremendous price for canceling or deferring capital investments. Park and recreation agencies with aging infrastructure and amenities in disrepair will struggle to deliver the benefits of parks and recreation to all members of the community. The NRPA research team used NRPA Park Metrics data to estimate that local park and recreation agencies have more than $60 billion of deferred maintenance. This data helped support the permanent authorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) last year.
The need to chip away at deferred projects with limited financial resources also can constrain agencies from investing in new park and recreation infrastructure and amenities. Growing populations with diverse needs and desires make these investments more critical.
The pandemic has demonstrated that parks and recreation is essential for healthy and resilient communities. This includes the more than 190 million people across the nation who went to a park, trail or other open space in the first three months of the pandemic or the many ways park and recreation professionals served in their communities’ emergency response. But deferring maintenance and delaying critical capital investments will make it harder for park and recreation professionals and their agencies to continue serving in this vital role. Deferring maintenance and delaying capital projects only lead to a bigger bill down the road.
Kevin Roth is NRPA’s Vice President of Research, Evaluation and Technology.