A Systems Approach to Managing Parks Infrastructure

Nation-wide, as a profession Parks & Recreation officials are challenged each year by insufficient budgets, growing expectations, unfunded mandates and aging infrastructure. We often gather at state and national congress and share disappointments and war stories. Frankly, it’s amazing we haven’t given up; miraculously, we rise above the challenge and adopt a “we’re not giving up, we’re just warming up attitude”.

We put on our best face when we can and encourage our staff to hang in there and “Continuously Improve – Achieve Total Quality Management – Manage in a Minute -Search for Excellence – Be Tolerant, Inclusive, Collaborative - Use Best Practices” and other management flavors of the month because if we do this then we’ll know when we’ve done something because we’ll have Benchmarks and Performance Indicators that will tell us so! Whew, at the end of the day we’re still kind of stuck because our infrastructure is just another day older and another day tired.

A Call to Action!

Ever thought about how things get done in a multi-layered organization, like government? Well, it’s typically something like this – big wheels at the top “the public” initiate their request, because the public is such a huge cog, it really doesn’t move things much, maybe one tooth, it really doesn’t have to, because that one tooth move at the top causes two teeth in the next smaller cog and by the time it hits your staff level, their spinning! Check out the graphic below and see if you can relate; the names might change but I’d bet you agree the model rings pretty true. This model represents a system approach too; but maybe it’s not the system you want to use.

Well, let me try and convince you that it doesn’t have to be this way, truly, it doesn’t. Longmont, Colorado has taken its destiny into our own hands and developed a “Systems Approach” to managing our capital assets. That sounds a little daunting, so what is a “systems approach”?

A system is a collection of interacting, interrelated, and interdependent pieces that together form a whole. In the political environment, systems can become disjointed and distorted by the outside forces that drive key decisions important to the system.

Why is systems thinking valuable? Because it can help us explore well reasoned enduring solutions to both simple and complex problems. In its simplest sense, systems thinking gives you a more accurate picture of reality, so that you can work with a system's natural forces in order to achieve the results you desire. It also encourages you to think about problems and solutions with a focus on the future. It allows you to think about the consequences of a failure to act and on the unintended consequences of your actions. Finally, systems thinking is grounded in an understanding of basic, universal principles that you will begin to notice in all areas of your functional responsibility. In the end, systems thinking is about a philosophy not a reaction to events that force you to respond.

So what? How does that get my tennis courts rebuilt or my pool shell replaced or my roof repaired? Well, what it means initially is developing a set of sound fiscal policies that guide the way we do business. For instance, in Longmont, among many other things our financial policies that guide our budget practices dictate that monies depending on their source, volatility and predictability all tempered against strict State of Colorado TABOR rules (Taxpayer Bill of Rights which controls government spending) are categorized into two distinct groups. On-going revenues, like property tax, some amount of sales and use tax that can be predicted to be stable and One time revenues that are less predictable, like the outer margins (growth) of our sales and use tax estimates. Further, our financial policy dictates that %’s be assigned separately to operating expenses and capital expenses to ensure that to a degree our capital assets are being depreciated and replaced.

To address our City’s capital needs we have all of the normal funds, Water, Sewer, Street, etc. but we also have a “Public Improvement Fund” generally described as the battleground for all the city’s General Fund Services capital needs. Having a Public Improvement fund may sound pretty easy, but it’s not quite that way; really not by a long shot. Every department still has their long list of needed capital items for repair or replacement or expansion of their services and the money is gone long before the needs are met.

Having sound financial policies is the best insurance against the political bartering that can occur to strengthen the support of some elected officials and ward politics. Churchill, or someone else who was smart once said, “All Politics is Local”, and that really is the case. Many times we have heard elected officials decree, “I am getting a lot of calls on this or that” and typically a lot is somewhere between 0 and 3. That’s not to say that they don’t get drilled on some issues, because they do; let see, Wal-Mart might ring a bell. This kind of political posturing really throws budgets into disarray and does nothing for the long range, systems approach. So it really begs the question, why in Longmont have Parks, Recreation and Public Facilities been able to receive the Lions share of the Public Improvement fund monies, by far, more than all of the other general fund departments combined? It’s easy, we have elected officials and executive decision makers that support a systems approach!

After you have a sound financial policy that supports the need for balanced operational and capital spending you need to educate your decision makers about the critical nature of your departmental needs. How does that occur? Well it doesn’t occur by writing a memo with a bunch of numbers and no good solutions. Fortunately for us we have a City Manager that is big on knowing what’s going on; or as my teenager would say “Hey, Whussup?” That being the case, he is always willing to actually, dare I say, go in the field and see for himself “Whussup”. We did that in 1994 with a Tour de Parks with the City Manager and our Parks & Recreation Advisory Board. They saw first hand how the parks system had been deteriorating over the years. The City Manager was so distraught that he hasn’t gone back in the field since, just kidding. In 1994 our population was around 58,000 people, today our population is around 89,000.

While it would be optimum to get your City Council on a bus and tour the parks system, that’s not a likely scenario. So you need to bring the field to them. We did that by creating a PowerPoint presentation; gotcha again, PowerPoint wasn’t born yet so we did a multi-media slide show with some really sad Civil War music and called it “Our Parks are Tired”. The presentation was shown at a regular City Council meeting and graphically documented the condition of the Park System, demonstrating the need and offering system solutions. We focused the Councils attention to the following systems:

Item and Problem


Playgrounds - old, non-compliant- uninteresting

All playgrounds must conform with CPS and ADA guidelines and be replaced every 10 years

Park Pathways – largely composed of crumbling asphalt, ADA non-compliant

All pathways would be replaced with ADA compliant concrete products with a projected life expectancy of 20 years

Sport courts – asphalt base, cracked crumbling, unsafe

All sport courts would be removed and replaced with post tension cable concrete with a life expectancy of at least 15 years.

Pools and wading pools – code deficient, conservation deficient, failing filter and circulation systems uninteresting

All pools would become code compliant and phased improvements to accommodate new trends and customer enhancements

Park shelter and restrooms – old, worn out, aesthetically challenged

All shelters and restrooms would be replaced or repaired with new facades relevant to the park and neighborhood surrounds and vandal resistant. We also converted most of our restroom to uni-sex to lower the cost and operational expenses. All Structures are made of split face block, raised metal seam roof and durable construction

Irrigation systems – basic, poor design, manual control

All irrigation systems would be centralized control, support conservation by enhancing raw water capabilities, etc.

The city has an inventory of all of our fixed Capital assets called CAMP (Capital Asset Management Plan), you know how much government loves acronyms, we even have an acronym for that word, A. So we had to come up with a way to identify the major components pieces, we affectionately refer to these as “mini CAMP”, hoohah! All of the items mentioned above have been accomplished in the past 10 years. An estimated $5 million has been spent making our parks go from tired to tight!

So here’s the next question. Ok so you now have fully restored the existing park system but what have you done about making sure you were able to bring on new parks and facilities to keep pace with a growing community? Surely, your money must be gone! Well, actually no, thanks to a systems thinking approach we were able to take care of this problem as well. In Longmont we have the basic financial policy that growth pays its fair share. What that means to parks is that new growth has to ensure that our parkland and service standards can be maintained.

We have a very aggressive but highly defensible Park Improvement Fee that is grounded in this financial policy and supported by systems thinking. Essentially we ensure that all capital required to purchase land and construct neighborhood and community parks, including special outdoor recreation amenities like pools, skateparks and off-leash dog areas are all factored in to the fee. So we have a fee that is assessed against residential development only and is currently $4788 per unit of housing. Ouch! No way, Yes way; and we made sure that our Home Builders and Board of Realtors associations were a fundamental part of that process. Every argument that was thrown down was later resolved because of the comprehensive, defensible systems based methodology used as the construct for the fee. Even the criticism that was leveled, that we are building “Cadillac Parks” had to be set aside given the fact that the existing parks were rebuilt up to the same quality standards as our new construction. Simple put, we are holding the development community to the same quality standards we had set for ourselves.

Finally, I need to add one more thing into the system thought process; and that is, you can have all the systems in the world in place but you had better be able to Deliver! Deliver what? The whole package; everything, that’s right, everything from great design to on time and on –budget. You better make sure that the community and neighborhoods and special interest groups are involved and support the decision making. You’d better deliver the brass ring to your elected officials so that they can celebrate with their community in the accomplishments that make your town livable and special. You need to acknowledge the city’s leadership team, the City Manager, Finance Director, Budget Manager and especially your staff. They all make it happen.

If you can deliver you will be rewarded. Our successes have been significant, visible and recognized. We have been rewarded with citizen support, a $22 million bond for new Recreation Center and Cultural Center; and an additional sales tax increment to fund a new start up$75 million Open Space & Trails program.

Because we were able to show we can deliver we have now assimilated a struggling Facility Operations and Maintenance Division into our department. Like “Our Parks are Tired” so are our city’s buildings. Since taking over this service we have restructured the management and the thought processes from crisis / reaction to a systems approach. We have great staff that are now able to demonstrate their creativity and look forward with a high degree of optimism. For example, in just two budget cycles we have reduced management by 30% and almost doubled the maintenance staff, thus lowering our FTE : sq ft ratios significantly.

We have initiated an electronic work order system so that all internal customers can use our Lotus Notes platform to request and track their projects, we hope to see it go live this year; we have just completed a comprehensive evaluation of all roofs on all city buildings to develop a short and long range systems approach for replacement of this key component infrastructure. We are doing similar work on the HVAC, boilers, carpet – flooring, and other critical building systems. We believe that none of this could have been possible without making the argument that we had a vision – we made a plan – we convinced others that the plan was good - we put great people in critical positions of responsibility – we supported them – we were patient – we delivered! My motto is: If it’s difficult we can handle it, if it’s impossible, it will just take a little longer”. Come check us out some time, for people that have never heard of Boulder, we usually tell them it’s 10 minutes from Longmont.

Don Bessler is the Director for Longmont Parks, Open Space & Public Facilities in Longmont, Colorado.