Straight Priorities

My grandfather was a successful farmer up until his retirement in the early '60s.

One of my most vivid recollections of my days on the farm was my grandfather's frugality. I remember him often saying, "We can't just run to town. It costs 25 cents in gas to get there and back."

He lived four miles from a very small town and would allow a list of needs to accumulate over several days, or even weeks, before he would spend the 25 cents to drive to town and back. His financial management was honed by the Great Depression and years of living as a self-sufficient farmer. No surprise, then, that my grandfather prioritized needs and wants, expansion and status quo.

Day by Day

Today, as some park and recreation agencies are feeling the effect of declining tax revenues and user fees, some of my grandfather's perspective may prove to be beneficial.

Now I'm not suggesting that anyone start sewing park uniforms out of seed sacks (a common practice in the early part of the last century was for farming families to make clothes out of feed sacks and seed sacks).

However, some of the principles of prioritization, i.e., assessing need vs. want and evaluating the cost of doing business that developed on the farm during the Depression can be helpful where funding shortfalls are today's reality.

Here's a list based on those principles that might help. Items are listed as what to do first.

1. Do your best to identify the width and depth of the funding shortfall. Is the projection expected to be one year, five years, ten years? How deep is the funding shortfall -- 10 percent, 20 percent, 30 percent?

2. Search out other sources of revenue. For example, will a local philanthropy fund the expense of a new shelter in exchange for naming rights? Will a vendor sponsor a swimming program? Is there potential for rate increases for entry or programming?

3. Identify the budget amount. What will you have to work with?

4. Separate need from want.

5. Once you have a feel for the width and depth of the shortfall, and the potential for outside funding, maintain the status quo, but cut out the "additional" -- additional programs, additional staff, additional facilities, additional training. For the time being, do with what you have.

6. Evaluate the cost of marketing. How many brochures need to be printed, and how many will end up in the wastebasket? Do they really need to be glossy and filled with graphics?

7. Evaluate cost-cutting opportunities such as car-pooling, programmable thermostats, lights-on timers, design of signs, building furnishings, ad infinitum.

8. Postpone filling vacancies, bringing seasonal employees back, non-vital purchases. How much can you save if all of the seasonals start two weeks later and leave two weeks earlier? What are the savings when a position is open four months instead of two?

9. Look for reductions in administration. If the number of purchases is reduced, can the purchasing staff be reduced as well? If new projects are put on hold, can planning and design staff be reduced? If training programs are reduced can the training staff be reduced as well?

10. Cut the poorly attended, unpopular programs. Reduce facility operating hours during times of low attendance. Mow less grass. Trim less grass. Lengthen the mowing cycle (the time between mowings). How much could you save if areas were mowed 14 times a year instead of 18 times a year?

11. Consider voluntary pay reduction, deferred pay, deferred time off. Will employees voluntarily take an across-the-board pay cut? Will employees defer pay to a later date, months, or several years into the future? Will employees work 80 hours and accept pay for 72 hours, with the agreement they will receive additional paid vacation time after the budget crisis (if you have made it to # 8 you are in a crisis)? What about voluntary layoffs?

12. Begin to cut service across the board. This is the last resort. We are, after all, public servants. There are those who question the ethics of cutting service in the initial phases of funding shortfall management prior to nonessential cutbacks taking place.

No doubt there can be considerable debate as to prioritization and sequencing of cutbacks. There is no single answer that works for all, but the basics of recognizing need vs. want and performing cost of doing business evaluations is applicable everywhere. So how much does it cost your agency for staff to run to the store?

Steve Dice is the director of park operations for Cleveland Metroparks.