In this tough economy, budgets for ball fields are being squeezed like every other area of parks and recreation. Because of this stress and an immediate need to make changes, parks departments are devising clever ways to cut costs while sustaining high maintenance standards for the community.
In Tucson, Ariz., the parks and recreation department lost 10 percent of its budget in the last two years with more cuts coming. In Bloomington, Ind., budget challenges started five years ago. The department first saw a 20-percent cut after eight years of sound budgeting. The limited funds began to shift from parks to other city departments.
Although it’s a move most departments don’t want to make, sometimes the best thing to do is trim personnel. In Tucson, the department is accomplishing this by leaving positions of retirees unfilled. In Bloomington, the department has stopped hiring seasonal help.
“We’re conscientious of our use of staff,” says Ron Odell, Southwest District Superintendent in Tucson. “As we get smaller with personnel, we’re getting more strategic in our use.”
One way to use employees more efficiently is to watch for usage trends at parks.
In Tucson, for example, parks with shaded areas have a lot of traffic, so staff is directed to these parks during weekends and Mondays to clean up litter and the restrooms. During the weekdays, the staff maintains other parks.
The Bloomington Parks Department uses a divide-and-conquer strategy to manage its maintenance task list, where zones identify parks within close proximity to each other, usually within walking distance.
This new practice has helped maximize not only time, but equipment availability because workers report directly to their zones where equipment is already stored. This saves on transportation time, fuel and productivity.
“We have 40-plus sites, and by being able to compile some into zones, those locations are becoming very productive,” says Dave Williams, Operations Director in Bloomington. Although not all of the city’s sites are contained within a zone, grouping some together has helped with overall productivity.
Although equipment consumes a large part of the financial pie, replacing worn-out or irreparable machines on a limited budget may not always be possible.
“In Tucson, we’re really in such a state with our equipment that we can’t replace the fleet,” says Odell. Workers are forced to use preventative maintenance on existing equipment. “We do everything we can to make it go longer,” he says. From weed whackers to riding mowers, preventative maintenance, such as scheduling oil changes and swapping out filters, is followed precisely to extend the life of equipment.
Another option to increase the longevity of equipment is to share it between city and county systems.
In other cases, the equipment won’t be able to cover as much ground, and the only other option is to scale back the amount of use on each machine.
“We dialed back the amount of acres we would maintain,” says Williams. “We put a cap on the amount of mowing we would do. We don’t mow as much or as frequently.”
He added the department is doing a trial of using turf grass as a replacement for traditionally seeded grass to reduce mowing.
With staff cuts and the inability to keep up with equipment, another option to provide the best service is to outsource large jobs. Bloomington has done this to help with its groundskeeping.
“We have incorporated more contractual services in our maintenance plan,” says Mick Renneisen, Parks Director in Bloomington. “The same work can be done more cheaply and more efficiently by contracting.”
For jobs that require specialized equipment, outsourcing to a company that already houses the equipment can come in handy.
Looking For Cheaper Alternatives
Once upon a time when Tucson had a larger budget, the winter months were used for over-seeding turf. Instead, workers now treat Bermuda turf with ryegrass. Although the turf goes dormant, turns yellow, and looks dead and barren in spots, it’s a method that allows the turf to grow well in cooler temperatures (from 30 to 50 degrees), and has a minimal cost. The treatment helps protect against the wear-and-tear of cleats. However, the turf ends up looking very poor by December and January.
“It will not die, but it’s an educational experience when you have to tell customers about the change. We don’t have the money for staff to continuously water and seed the areas, so this is the alternative,” says Odell.
One area the city of Bloomington found to reduce costs is in cutting back on the number of trash receptacles. The city also started removing trash inside facilities only when the receptacles were full.
“It’s been well-received by most of our residents,” says Williams. He added others have concerns because of “sanitary reasons.”
Since the 32-gallon receptacles cost about $2 to empty each time, the reduction helps not only with the cost of liners and disposal, but with the associated labor.
Keep Fees Current With Operational Costs
Although the last thing a parks department wants to do in a downward economy is to increase fees associated with recreational sports and renting facilities, sometimes there is no alternative.
“If you provide a quality service, people will pay for it,” says Rennesisen. “And in order to provide that service, you need to keep up on maintenance, which costs the labor of staff.”
In order to evaluate when it’s appropriate to increase fees, ask if the service has changed to include more functionality. Whether the change is updated equipment, additional staffing or renovations to the facility, the costs need to be recovered. If a department has not been increasing resident fees and needs to recoup that cost, Renneisen suggests making small adjustments over a period of time in order to catch up to current operational costs.
“In today’s budget climate, there is no room for absorption anymore,” he says.
In order to function with tighter purse strings and still provide quality maintenance, it’s critical to prioritize.
“Our priority is safety first, and second is a clean and beautiful park,” says Odell. Due to a lack of personnel, the department is missing out on the details.
Although Tucson accumulates a great deal of graffiti in parks, removing it is a tedious, time-intensive process, so it sometimes stays on walls longer in order to make safety and sanitation the priority.
Tree-trimming is another area where priority rules over preference. Instead of the thorough tree-trimming that used to occur, the department only trims for safety hazards.
“The team works all pathways with branches and limbs, but they can’t do the detail work due to limited staff and limited time,” says Odell. “Our priority now is that trees are lifted to clear potential injuries.”
Bloomington has had to incorporate a similar methodology when it comes to planning maintenance.
“We are still making sure our standards are maintained,” says Williams. “Budget cuts are not a good excuse for a lack of maintenance altogether, although some things have to be cut or scaled back.”