Misery Loves Company

Editor’s Note : This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.

OK, I admit, I’m writing this column because misery loves company, and I want to know if everyone else out there is feeling this budget crunch as badly as we are in Peachtree City, Ga.

One thing I’ve learned since starting in local government is that public-finance people are, by nature and profession, tight-fisted, frugal and penny-pinching--at least the good ones are. That’s their job--to make sure there’s more money left at the end of the month than month left at the end of the money.

I’ve worked with at least three different finance directors since taking this position in 1997, and each year as we went into the budget cycle we heard the same lament.

“This is going to be a tough budget year coming up, toughest we’ve ever faced,” they would say in our preliminary meetings. Then, after sweating departments out of every bit of spare change, the director would magically come up with funding for needed items and programs until the next budget cycle, when it would again be the worst ever seen.

Now, after surviving two or three of these cycles, feeling like I’d probably rather be in Iraq getting shot at than sitting through a budget hearing, I began to see the trend, got into a rhythm, and learned the rules of the game. Then it became more of a “boy-who-cried-wolf” story, that it was the finance director’s job to predict gloom and doom, and my job to articulate what we needed to get the job done, and allow our elected officials to make the final decision.

This year is different.

Reality Hits

This year the boy cried wolf, and there really is a wolf out there. Our city is better off than many, having implemented long-standing, frugal financial policies to provide a great quality of life within our means. So we are probably insulated slightly more than many, and it may take a year or two more to hit us.

Now, I’m not going to get into the political decisions that may have led us to where we are, or the staff recommendations to make small incremental increases in the millage rate that would have cushioned the fall. It’s not my place. Suffice it to say that, in spite of good advice from the city staff, we are where we are. As a wise man once told me, “It is what it is, and it ain’t what it ain’t, so don’t make what it is what it ain’t.” This is really sage advice once you figure out what it means--you may need to read it two or three times. Where we are is cutting the current city budget by more than a million dollars in order to balance it. Where we are is deferring maintenance, canceling purchases of equipment and vehicles, canceling non-essential projects. Where we are is facing the same thing--maybe even more severe next year--unless and until the economy picks up.

Indeed, the wolf is at the door.

More With Less

It’s amazing how, in times like these, definitions of “necessary” and “priority” change. Everything seems to roll back to the basics--keep the lights on, the utilities working and the doors open--even if with shortened operating hours, which we’ve also had to do at a couple facilities. But we can only defer maintenance so long before it’s obvious we’re deferring maintenance, and the infrastructure begins to show its age and overuse. Caught in the vortex of a fiscal crisis, all we can do is try to hang on to what we have, and hope things improve sooner rather than later. Perhaps this budget crisis that has hit the nation and affected the whole world explains why I’ve had such a large response to the LBWA column entitled “Recreation Road Show” in the PRB December issue.

In that article I described a PowerPoint presentation I developed to tell the story of what we in Peachtree City Leisure Services do. I give this to civic groups, citizen groups, elected officials, staff and anyone who will listen. It creates a better understanding for the community, and helps validate our budget requests. I offered to share the presentation with recreation professionals and to this point I’ve had about two dozen requests with a few more sitting in my e-mail inbox as I write this. A common theme of requestors is that they would like to develop a similar presentation to counter the perception that recreation professionals “have the best jobs in the world because they just have fun and play games all day.” That may be partially true, but for the most part when others are having fun, we’re working! Many also said they found it challenging to compete for budget dollars in this economy, and thought this presentation might help them. I am happy to share because what helps one recreation department ultimately helps the entire field.

I guess the consolation in this whole budget conundrum is that we’re all in it together, and indeed there is strength in numbers. There isn’t a single American who is not in some way touched by it, some more than others. Let’s hope that as we move into the New Year and a new administration, our elected and appointed officials can put aside their differences and remember why they were elected or appointed in the first place.

So, do you care to share any of your budget horror stories, or ideas on recession-proof recreation? Write me or the magazine, and we’ll share them with the field.

Randy Gaddo , a retired Marine, is Director of Leisure Services (parks, recreation, library) in Peachtree City, Ga. Contact him at (770) 631-2542 or e-mail dls@peachtree-city.org