Maintenance By The Numbers -- LBWA

Photos Courtesy of Oakland, MI Parks and Recreation Department

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.

When the PRB editor told me that the November issue was going to be a “numbers” issue and suggested I try to develop a standard parks-maintenance cost model, I was faced with a dilemma.

On the one hand, I thought it was a great idea and would provide a useful tool for someone who might be starting or revamping a maintenance plan.

On the other hand, I wondered how I was going to provide a useful tool to gauge maintenance costs when there are so many variables, such as:

  • How each rec department is positioned in comparison with other government departments regarding the percentage of the total budget

  • How much support each department has from its administrative and elected leaders

  • Whether those leaders influence the budget process

  • Whether the leaders have the training, experience, and tools with which to defend and justify the budget.

I finally decided to take on the assignment by the numbers—four numbers, to be exact. I chose four steps that would apply, no matter how large or small the department.

I did make a few assumptions as I approached this task.

I assume that if you are still reading this far into the article, you are in need of this information. You aren’t a seasoned pro in a large department who does this easily and has staff waiting to help make it happen. You might be a director in a small- to mid-sized department with a small staff; maybe you are a maintenance manager new to the department, or even to the field of recreation. Perhaps you have experience in other areas of parks and rec but not in maintenance. Whatever the reason, you are seeking ideas on how to logically approach budgeting for maintenance.

Another assumption is that you don’t have a current maintenance master plan—or maybe you’ve never had one. I am talking about a plan separate but related to any rec department master plan. This plan would be what provides a justification to support budget requests from maintenance to the department director—before it goes any higher.

A third assumption is that you realize this fairly brief “LBWA” column is not going to provide all the answers; with luck, it may provide guidance, and it may give you something to think about that will lead you to others.

So, with these qualifiers, let me launch into my four steps towards developing, justifying, and maintaining a functional maintenance budget.

STEP 1: Plan The Work

It is highly advisable—some might even say absolutely necessary—to have a well-thought-out, justifiable, written maintenance plan. Hope is not a plan; a plan needs to be written down.

A one-year plan is OK, a five-year plan is even better, and a 10-year plan demonstrates true understanding of maintenance and equipment cycles and needs. This plan should be compiled in a simple, organized manner that is easily understood by even the most junior maintenance worker.

In fact, it should have input from every level of the department so that there’s “buy-in” to the plan.

Mike Donnellon says inclusion is the first step in developing a new maintenance budgeting plan. He is the chief of Park Facilities, Maintenance and Development for Oakland County, Mich., Parks and Rec ( ), a system with 13 parks on 6,700 acres.

“The first thing I do is set up a meeting with all the maintenance staff and supervisors to talk about what we’ll need to focus on in the upcoming year,” notes Donnellon, who comes from a private-practice landscape-architecture background, and has been with government since 1996. “This is an open dialog about things that need to be addressed, from leaking faucets and roofs to repairs to major equipment. I need to know it all.”

Donnellon starts this conversation before the current year’s budget has even been approved. For example, the 2015 budget was submitted for county commission approval in early September, but he was already beginning his discussions for the 2016 budget in August.

Through this process, he develops maintenance requirements and capital-improvement projects along with a preliminary scope of work and budget based on five priority levels, from health and safety to customer service. The plan projects out 10 years from 2015-2025, and provides background on the plan’s approach and a cost analysis on each project or item.

For every actionable item, be sure to provide options or solutions; for every item that requires a budget, research it and provide a cost. For items beyond the next year, be sure to allow for inflation. And don’t short-change items; get a solid cost figure and be prepared to defend it. If it’s going to be “value engineered” by someone up the chain, so be it, but stand by your numbers.

Leon Younger, President of PROS Consulting ( ), which specializes in developing parks and rec maintenance plans, has found in his nearly three decades of work in the field that most parks and rec departments don’t have a maintenance plan.

“Most departments are in an efforts-based culture and are overextended,” says Younger, who was in public parks and recreation for 24 years prior to moving into the private sector. He says the four main elements an effective plan should address are:

  • Costs

  • Life cycle of assets

  • Estimation of the frequency of care to match the budget

  • Matching equipment to people and skills.

“We work collectively with directors, parks supervisors, and staff to help them understand these components and use them to develop a working plan,” he says.

Step 2: Test The Plan

Before taking a maintenance plan to the boss, “beta test” it informally with staff, family members, patrons, and anyone else trusted to provide impartial, informal feedback.

“I vet my plan through maintenance staff, as well as the executive, programming, and activities staff,” explains Donnellon, “then it goes to our recreation commission at least twice before they sign off, and it goes to the county commission for approval.”

As the plan is circulated, it should be marked DRAFT in large red letters so someone doesn’t mistake it for a final product. A note can be attached stating exactly what should be done to give it a reality check. Does it make sense? Is it clear?

People are not reading the draft for grammar and spelling—although errors can be red-lined—but they are giving the plan the “man-on-the-street” review. If they understand it, others probably will; if they have concerns or questions, it is best to get them cleared up before the boss finds them.

Also, think about asking someone in the finance department give the draft an informal review, as a favor and not as an official request. Finance staff will have a different and pragmatic view of what you are proposing and the members can offer valuable insight. You may not like what they say, but you will have the benefit of knowing what will make the plan more achievable.

Step 3: Present The Plan

Substance over form is an accounting standard dictating that financial statements present a complete, relevant, and accurate picture of transactions and events. Follow this principle in developing a maintenance plan. However, in this case form is important, that is, the form of your presentation.

You can have the best, most relevant plan available but if you can’t clearly and concisely convey the essence of the plan to others, it will be shot full of holes by those whose job it is to do so. Once you have a written plan, prepare to “sell” it. Just like a sales person selling a service or product, you have to convince your client—in this case, your boss—that the plan is justified. This will require two things: tools and preparation.

Tools can have many forms. Visual impact is important to most department directors, who will need to further sell the plan up the food chain, so the more you can provide that, the easier their job will be—and the better chance of the plan surviving the budget battle.

If your boss is accustomed to using PowerPoint presentations, then prepare one; make it brief, make it relevant. Add photos of items you are discussing.

For example, if you are asking for a piece of infield grooming equipment that will help alleviate problems that have generated complaints from users, show the inadequate infields and the equipment. If you can show a short video of the equipment being used, that’s even better.

Or, if you are asking for a replacement widget in a major system that is prone to breaking down, show the boss the widget in its broken form, then in its new form. Touching and handling the widget adds realism to the presentation and drives home the point.

If electronic projection equipment isn’t available, then consider a different presentation format, sometimes called a “laptop” presentation. This can actually be a laptop computer set on a conference-room table, or it might be a printed copy of the presentation. Whatever the form, visual impact is important.

Preparation is critical to success. The best-developed presentation will fall flat on its face if the presenter hasn’t practiced it—a lot. It isn’t enough to merely develop the presentation and go over it once in your head. You must enunciate it clearly and in front of a mirror. The more you practice, the more ingrained the presentation will become in your mind. Practicing in front of a mirror will give you confidence and may help identify and correct distracting habits, such as clicking your pen or shifting from foot to foot.

Critique yourself. What words do you stumble over? Do you get so tied up in detail that you lose comprehension? Do you ramble on for two minutes when the point could have been made in 30 seconds?  Be brutal; don’t cut yourself any slack. Put yourself in the place of the boss, who has a dozen other issues to deal with while he or she listens to you. Respect the boss’s time and attention span.

Once you think you have the presentation as smooth as silk, find a real audience, perhaps a small group of maintenance staff members, other parks department staff, and maybe a couple of citizens you know well and who use park services. Articulating your presentation in front of this audience will do two things: It will help you shake presentation butterflies, and it will generate input from the audience that may strengthen your pitch.

“We practice presenting the plan to our administrative management and support team,” suggests Donnellon. “We also go through at least two public workshops with the recreation commission so by the time we come up for final approval, we’re pretty confident in our presentation.”

One last point: If presentation skills are not your forte, get help from a pro. Find someone on staff or among other friends or acquaintances who is good at it and seek that person’s advice. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.

Step 4: Work The Plan

Once the plan is accepted by the boss and goes up the line to finally be approved as part of the annual budget, work immediately to execute the plan.

In fact, in anticipation of the new budget year, start developing resources to obtain quotes for service, and develop language for RFPs (requests for proposals). Gather staff to help with these tasks (buy-in) and to establish priorities.

Donnellon believes that this vetting process enables him to have confidence that all or most of the recommendations will remain intact. “I actually start preliminary legwork on projects before final approval to get a head start on implementation,” he notes.

In other words, once you’ve planned the work, work the plan. The sooner you get the funding obligated or spent, the less chance it will be reallocated later in the budget year.

So what will your final numbers be? I don’t know; I don’t have a crystal ball. But I can predict that the final budget will depend on the effort you put into the process long before it is approved. The 6 “P’s” apply in this case: Proper Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance. Apply that principle plus your own good judgment, and the numbers should all add up.

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He developed, wrote, administered, and presented maintenance plans as well as recreation master plans during that time. Gaddo earned his Master’s in Public Administration, and now lives in Beaufort, S.C. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email .