Parks & Recreation Directors on Cost Recovery and Uncertain Times

Helene Fleischer
Helene Fleischer
July 20, 2020 4 min read

The past few months have afforded us the opportunity to strengthen our relationships with Parks and Recreation professionals to understand what their new challenges are and how they’re addressing them.

To get the pulse of the industry during this time, we hosted a Virtual Panel Event in May, the (Uphill) Road to Financial Stability, in which we teamed up with 5 industry leaders:

Attendees were excited to learn more about maximizing resources in the face of a pandemic and learning what other agencies were doing during this time. Post-event, we met with agency leaders Janet Bartnik and Stacie Anaya to talk more about their experiences as Executive Director and Director.

janet bartnik stacie anaya parks and rec directors

If you could go back in time before the pandemic, what would you do differently?

JB: This might sound odd, as most of our staff are creative thinkers, but I think it would have been helpful to have practiced creative thinking techniques – and that goes for me, too. That could have allowed the whole team to be nimble in offering programs in new ways. Initially, we were all caught on our heels trying to rethink how we do our work that we were delayed in springing into action.

SA: I’m not sure we would change much. Our Cost Recovery strategy was developed with input from staff, policymakers, and stakeholders. That means that procedures for evaluating a program that doesn’t meet our goals are in place – and they’re not scary. We have a stacked toolbox for addressing deficiencies, like modifying logistics of service delivery, tightening the expense-side of the delivery, raising the price, or discontinuation.

We are using this toolbox now to determine what we can move forward with post-COVID. Circumstance will dictate how aggressive or passive we are in the use of all these tools.

What is your recommendation for taking the first steps towards initiating Cost Recovery work?

JB: More than anything, allocating resources requires staff to take a critical look at what resources are available (fiscal, human, physical facilities, etc.) and plotting those against greatest needs for service in the community.

A critical first step is gaining an understanding of the needs of the community. Being a health-oriented person, I tend to start with a stop at the county public health department to ask what health issues are impacting the community and how the health department might partner with us — as a programmatic and a community social hub facility operator to gain traction in combatting those, whether physical, social, or behavioral health issues.

SA: Develop a good understanding of what support and involvement you will have from your city manager, as well as elected/appointed officials. Your process will be dictated by their level of involvement in the development and the implementation of your model. While it might take you a little longer to develop a model with their involvement, their buy-in will be critical to the implementation of the model.

Additionally, raising fees or eliminating a long-held sacred cows is a little easier when you have their support.

cost recovery sacred cows

What is the Cost Recovery model you use?

JB: Mountain Recreation uses a pyramid-based resource allocation model that affords more subsidized resources to programs and services that improve quality of life for the community.

Those services that result in greater benefit to the individual are afforded less subsidy and more fiscal participation from the individual benefitting. Staff use this model to set pricing for programs and services.

SA: We use the model at the onset of the budget season to determine if where we direct resources, if we need to propose raising fees, or to suggest significant modification/elimination of services.

At our agency, this model is called the Financial Support & Sustainability Strategy. This model helps us weigh the viability of various service categories – whether they have more individualized focus or if they support the common good of the community.

What measures did you take to get your team on board with this undertaking?

JB: The team here had not had an opportunity to document a pricing policy, nor the opportunity to feel as though they could serve the community equitably. This project not only allowed them to have written guidance to follow, but also fed their desire to focus on the outcomes they were achieving, rather than the financial profit. They jumped at the chance to put their personal passions to work for the County.

community financial planning

SA: We had conversations with the key members of the team and presentations to a wider audience as we prepped for the undertaking.

Then a team of about 15 managers, supervisors, and foreman participated in workshops and discussions (some debates) to develop the model. This included meetings with directors from other departments, policymakers and stakeholders.

Since they were part of creating the model, they have a little more buy-in with its implementation. Don't get me wrong, they are not as excited about it when compared to planning and coordinating a special event; however, they know it's important for everyone to be involved in creating a sustainable system for providing services.

Learn about the technology Parks & Rec directors use to make it happen.

See SmartRec in Action

How has your day-to-day changed as a result of Cost Recovery?

JB: The staff are empowered by the guidelines they wrote in the policy and have less need to ask if what they are planning to do meets the board’s expectations. The plans we use now start with outcomes in the design and not the fiscal bottom line, making the work more passion-driven and less pressure for staff.

SA: Not a lot, actually! The biggest change is during budget season for us. However, we have modified some of the daily information we capture at facilities and parks, so we have a good source document for evaluating how close we are to meeting our goals.

How has Cost Recovery changed your relationship with stakeholders and community members?

JB: We’ve been able to move away from a system that only served those who could afford to pay to play, now broadening our reach into the community. Thinking about the results and who will benefit before worrying about cost has created a system that appears to offer better customer service to the community. It’s been so well received by the public!

SA: The model helped establish membership rates for a new facility, opening later this year. Originally, membership rates were going to be fairly high to meet a facility-based cost recovery goal.

Now we have goals based on the entire gamut of services that will be offered at the facility. As memberships were categorized under our "drop-in monitored access" service category, the price point was considerably lower than originally anticipated. In general, our community members interested in the facility were very happy about the new price point established as it will give more families the capacity to purchase memberships and use the facility.

Any general tips for agencies navigating these uncertain times?

JB: Be sure to check in with staff to get a gauge of their stress levels related to operating under COVID. The staff’s mental health is critical to ensuring the community is served adequately.

SA: Stay safe and wash your hands!

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