$ave A Full-Time Position And More

Amy McMillan runs a tight ship.

As executive director of the Genesee County Parks and Recreation Commission, headquartered in Flint, Mich., she has watched property values plummet and the millage income that supports the parks decline as a result.

She has also watched use of the 11,000 acres of county parks increase. She knows that families are staying closer to home these days and that they are happily finding in the county parks an abundance of recreational opportunities--from playgrounds and picnic areas to fishing holes, disc golf, camping and ORV trails.

At a time when city budgets are also strained and city pools and parks are being closed, the county parks have become a “first choice” and often an “only choice” for residents.

McMillan knows that for parks to be attractive and usable, grasslands must be mowed, equipment and structures must be maintained, and rangers must be on duty for both visitor assistance and safety.

As unemployment looms large across the state, McMillan says proudly that the economic impact of the parks commission’s payroll in 2009 was just under $7 million, and that local spending by her employees supported an additional 113 local full-time jobs.

She states, with her signature enthusiasm, that maintaining the largest county-park system in the state for the past 10 years has been both a joy and a challenge, and that she works with the best staff on the planet. For all these reasons and more, issuing pink slips to accommodate a shrinking budget simply isn’t an option she is interested in considering.

$tart With $10

Still, McMillan knows that budgets have to balance.

Faced with a dilemma that would stymie most people, McMillan has turned to the people who always have answers for her, her think tank, the staff.

“I put the challenge before them,” she says. “Whenever we need to reach out or communicate or get something done, we are always more successful when we bring the staff members in on the plan to get their ideas and their support.”

McMillan asked the members to think of ideas they could implement that would each save the commission $10. That figure seemed a good benchmark because it is the average cost per hour of a seasonal employee, and it seemed achievable. She hoped the ideas would generate between $25,000 and $40,000 in savings.

Ideas poured in, were evaluated, and launched as soon as possible.

Minimal Effort For Big $avings

Cell phones used by seasonal staff were put on “vacation” mode to save monthly fees. Computers, screens and typewriters were turned off at night. Blue jeans were allowed in place of the uniform pants purchased for the staff. When possible, sand replaced salt for snow and ice control.

One day was added to the routine mowing schedule to save fuel and labor. And staff advocated for “grow, not mow” by enhancing natural features of the parks and reducing areas that need to be regularly mowed.

Unused office supplies were gathered and redistributed as needed to save unnecessary ordering of extras. Trophies were switched from mugs to less expensive medals. Even a step as simple as changing the default to black on the color copier saved money by eliminating accidental expensive color printing

The result? In one year, a savings of $167,000!

“We set a goal,” McMillan says. “We met that goal, and we blew that goal out of the water!”

The Domino Effect

The savings equate to roughly 16,700 hours of labor--enough to keep machines running and workers mowing, and it leverages grants received by the parks from local funders such as the CS Mott Foundation.

“We found a way to keep staff in place and keep the parks in top shape so they can remain open and maintained to the standards that Genesee County residents have come to expect,” says McMillan, who gives full credit to the employees and members of the commission.

“They were proud to be part of this campaign, and every time they do something as simple as turn out the lights after leaving a room, they know they are part of its success.”

McMillan is equally proud of the economic impact of this initiative--the domino effect of a person earning a paycheck. By keeping staff employed, the members, in turn, can buy groceries and gas and school supplies for their kids. They can pay their rent or mortgage. The expenditures of those who are employed help keep others in the county employed as well.

The director’s office is now lit by energy-saving light bulbs, and McMillan turns off her computer before she goes home. And there’s one more thing: “Most of these savings will be realized permanently,” she says, “because we have changed forever how we work.”

Writer Susan Newhof lives with her husband, Paul Collins, in Montague, Mich., and is trying many of Genesee County Parks' $10 money-saving ideas in their home.