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In both the September issue and this issue of Parks & Recreation magazine, we have featured columns from John L. Crompton, Ph.D., the university distinguished professor of recreation, park and tourism sciences at Texas A&M University, on the topic of equity. Dr. Crompton has had an illustrious academic career, spanning more than 45 years, preparing park and recreation students for their future careers and publishing articles and books on marketing and financing public leisure and tourism services. Well respected in academia, he also has provided park and recreation consulting services for many jurisdictions and currently serves as a member of the city council in College Station, Texas.
Dr. Crompton’s recent columns describe four ways that agencies and their jurisdictions operationalize equity and allocate finite park and recreation resources: compensatory equity, equality, market/benefit equity and demand. He concludes this month’s column by noting communities must play the long game in their commitment to equity — whatever definition they follow — as it may take years to achieve desired outcomes. Recently, I followed up with him to better understand how park and recreation professionals and advocates can promote greater equity. Following is a synopsis of our discussion.
You Have to Ally With What's Important
Dr. Crompton notes that many cities have limited abilities to grow their budgets year to year due to a lack of voter or political will to raise taxes and, in some states, caps that limit revenue increases. Further, changes in the relative size of each department’s slice of the budget pie are incremental at best. For example, he used his experience as a political leader in College Station, noting that “their mandate is to health, safety and welfare… with safety being number one.” As a result, the city spends 54 percent of its annual budget on police and fire, with him declaring, “that’s not going to get lower.” With so much of his city’s budget essentially locked down, parks and recreation is one of many local government services vying for funding among the remaining 46 percent.
Dr. Crompton states that, in this environment, “[i]t all comes down to positioning.” Park and recreation agencies must position themselves to be a solution to local political leaders’ chief concerns. He notes that a mayor, city manager or council member thinks, “if you [all] are on the side of assisting in these, then I’m going to do everything I can to push money your way. But if you [all] are not on my side, then I can’t help you.”
For his community, political leaders’ and voters’ chief concern has been economic development. “And so, over the [past] 15 years, the parks and recreation department in our community is central to economic development and everybody recognizes it,” he says.
If You Want Equity, Ally With a Local Political Problem
What is important to political leaders may differ significantly by community, and history may provide insight on how parks and recreation can support its mission. Dr. Crompton notes that the initial driver for publicly funded recreation in the United States more than a century ago was to reduce youth crime. Similarly, improving public health was a primary spark for the creation of public urban parks. “Building a massive urban park like [New York City’s] Central Park or others in major [polluted] cities was because they created clean air.”
He contends the strongest “making the case” argument [would]be that “parks are essential to the health of the population.” The past two years have well demonstrated this point, as the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic led to record levels of park visitation in many communities across the United States. Parks and recreation not only was the sole physical activity opportunity for many people during the early days of the pandemic, but also was a significant contributor to many communities’ emergency response.
For many political leaders, park and recreation professionals and their agencies can be a robust solution for critical public health challenges. This view will grow even stronger as parks and recreation broadens its mission to serve as community wellness hubs that connect every community member to essential programs, services and spaces that improve health outcomes and enhance the quality of life.
The Key Is Acquiring Designated Revenue Streams
To further deliver on its mission, park and recreation agencies must diversify their funding model. Dr. Crompton posits that park and recreation’s reliance on general tax fund revenue will become even more challenging in the years to come, as growing populations and an inability (or unwillingness) to raise taxes will stress local government finances further. “We are not going to compete in the future in the general fund and, as this becomes more pernicious, we will be squeezed more and more. The key is independent revenue funds,” he says.
According to Dr. Crompton, the key to this is park and recreation leaders gaining greater clarity of the cost of providing services to the community. “You can’t make any sensible decision unless you have in place a real cost accounting system.” A firmer grasp of costs helps agency directors and local policymakers make informed decisions on potential new programming and services.
Dr. Crompton notes that a cost accounting system would help park and recreation agencies potentially operate some or all of their operations as an enterprise fund, where the agency generates and owns the revenue to fund operations. Informed pricing for programming and services could lead to a reduced reliance (but not eliminate) on tax dollars to fund expanded services — especially since, as he notes, many local governments’ funding models can be regressive (e.g., property and sales taxes). To ensure income is not a barrier to accessing park and recreation programming, agencies can use scholarships and graduated pricing mechanisms to ensure that all residents of a community may access the program.
Kevin Roth is NRPA’s Vice President of Research, Evaluation and Technology