115Journal of Park and Recreation Administration Volume 23, Number 1Spring 2005 pp. 115-129
Programs That Work
A Strategic Plan at the Core ofPublic Recreation FinancialManagement:A Case Study of Gwinnett County,Georgia
Stephen MaynardGwynn M. PowellWilliam Kittredge
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Many public sector park and recreationdepartments are experiencing financial difficulties as states, counties, andmunicipalities face severe revenue shortages as a direct result from astruggling economy. This trend may result in decreased operating andcapital budgets, decreased or eliminated grant monies, and/or frozenvacant staff positions. This crisis is not entirely unfamiliar for many publicrecreation agencies who over the years have grown accustomed to respond-ing to high expectations from the public for quality facilities and serviceswithin significant budget constraints.
Unfortunately, many agencies may have overextended themselves inthe 1990’s by acquiring and developing recreation facilities such asparklands, fitness centers, and aquatics complexes without anticipatingpotential negative financial conditions. This struggle with operating costsmay threaten the agencies’ ability to sustain these facilities, as well as theprograms that have been implemented and whose delivery is dependentupon the utilization of such facilities. This dilemma may be the result ofpoor capital planning, inaccurate operating and/or maintenance planning.As a result, some multi-million dollar recreation facilities are poorlymaintained, under-utilized, and in extreme cases, abandoned. Fortunately,there are public recreation agencies who have managed to maintainfinancial health while continuing to improve and expand facilities andservices. This financial health is accomplished by piecing together anintricate puzzle consisting of various financial management practices, whilemaintaining public support through the adoption and continuously updat-ing of a recreation and park comprehensive strategic plan.
To further complicate the situation, some communities’ efforts togenerate revenues through property tax increases, establishment of specialtaxes, and increased fees and charges have been met with stiff resistancefrom the public. Agency efforts to reduce operating costs through thereduction of operating hours, less frequent maintenance scheduling, andthe purchasing of lower quality supplies and equipment are also publiclyfrowned upon. Fortunately, there are public recreation agencies who havemanaged to maintain financial health while continuing to improve andexpand facilities and services. This financial health is accomplished bypiecing together an intricate puzzle consisting of various financial manage-
ment practices while maintaining public support through the adoption andcontinuously updating of a recreation and park strategic plan.
The purpose of this paper is to examine the finance system andstructure of a county park and recreation department, Gwinnett County,Georgia, and to examine potential explanations for its financial health andstability by identifying unique management practices and philosophies,that when combined, contribute significantly to positive agency outcomes.Gwinnett County was chosen for examination because of its dedication toutilizing sophisticated and diverse methods of financing its recreation andpark facilities and programs. A history of Gwinnett County recreationfinance will be presented along with revenue sources, budget structure, andexisting partnerships, while emphasizing the relationship between financeand a current recreation and park comprehensive strategic plan.
KEYWORDS: Public sector finance, strategic plan, management
AUTHORS: Stephen Maynard is with the Department of Recreation,Tourism, and Hospitality Management, University of North Carolinaat Greensboro. Gwynn Powell is with the University of Georgia, 343Ramsey Center, 300 River Road, Athens, GA 30602-6555. Phone:706-542-5064; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. William Kittredge is alsowith the University of Georgia. Address correspondence to the secondauthor.
Gwinnett County Recreation and Parks: A Historical Overview
Gwinnett County is located in northeastern Georgia and makes up partof the northern arc of the 10-county metropolitan Atlanta region. Occu-pying 437 square miles, Gwinnett is geographically one of the largestcounties in Georgia. Gwinnett’s population has increased from 167,000 in1980 to 588,448 in 2000, a growth rate of 252%, and is home to 14incorporated municipalities. The governing authority of the County con-sists of a five-person Board of Commissioners, including a full-time chairelected at large and four Commissioners elected within districts. Gwinnettoperates under the County Administrator form of management and haseleven operating departments. The County Administrator reports directlyto the Board of Commissioners and oversees the activities of the 11appointed County Department Directors.
Parks and Recreation is located in the Department of CommunityServices and is comprised of two divisions: Parks and Recreation Operationsand Planning and Development. There are currently over 140 full-timerecreation and park employees with an annual operating budget of over $20million, with 10% dedicated to capital improvements, 17% mandatoryreserve, and debt service payments toward retiring bonds.
Gwinnett County Recreation AuthorityThe creation of the Gwinnett County Parks and Recreation Depart-
ment occurred in 1971 when the residents of the Pinckneyville MilitiaDistrict enacted legislation by referendum to authorize a Recreation Tax
Levy. From 1971 to 1986, the Gwinnett County Parks and RecreationDepartment did not provide resources for the entire county, servingroughly 25% of County citizens with Recreation Tax Levy Funds, while 75%received little or no county funds. In 1986, a referendum was presented tothe citizens proposing the establishment of a county-wide recreation andparks system serving all County citizens, as well as a county-wide one millad valorem property tax for recreation purposes, and it was successfullypassed. To facilitate the financing of proposed recreation improvements, aRecreation Authority was established; a legal board with each CountyCommissioner appointing two representatives and the Commission Chairresponsible for appointing one. The Recreation Authority acts in anadvisory capacity to staff and oversees the distribution of recreation andpark revenue and funds, but does not oversee operational expenditures.The Authority is authorized to borrow money for any of its corporatepurposes and to issue revenue bonds payable solely from moneys pledgedfor that purpose. Additional security for the bonds is provided by a lien onany and all revenues realized by the County from the one mill RecreationTax Levy.
Comprehensive Parks and Recreation Strategic PlanAccording to Miller and Mutter (1988), “Strategic planning should
lead to better informed decisions, and it should allow an agency or systemto deal more effectively with dramatic changes in its environment” (p. 60).Dramatic changes resulting in financial challenges have been occurring inGeorgia over the past couple of years, and Gwinnett County has certainlynot been immune to these challenges. However, at the heart of theRecreation and Parks Department’s success, is its Parks and RecreationStrategic Plan updated every seven years. The plan provides a template fordecision making based on an agreed prioritization of facilities and facilitymanagement decision making, increasing management’s flexibility andability to proactively address fiscal challenges. The planning approachconsists of three essential roles, each conducted by an independent organi-zation: (1) recreation needs assessment survey, (2) public input workshopand study on municipal and county recreation services, and (3) citizensteering committee with broad and diverse representation. Throughout theplanning process, the mission statement of the Department (to providequality parks and leisure activities to the citizens of Gwinnett County) actsas the guiding principle. The engineering firm that conducted the firstupdate stated “the mission statement serves as a goal to be achievedthrough dedicated service to the public, continued professional training,and sound fiscal responsibility.” Miller and Mutter (1988) conclude that“the more clearly understood the mission, the greater effect it will have onfuture planning strategies” (p. 60). Since the mission statement of theDepartment involves the citizenry, Gwinnett County Parks and Recreationhas dedicated itself to providing numerous avenues for community mem-bers to engage in the participatory planning process. Hunt and Brooks
(1983) stated, “The usefulness of the plan will depend on a generalunderstanding and acceptance of the goals by all concerned. If this phaseof the planning process does not include the views of the public, any planis likely to fail. People not involved in the goal-formulation process at thebeginning cannot be expected to understand or support its products” (p.7).
Members of the citizen steering committee studied the existing recre-ation system, completed needs assessment survey reports, and recordedfeedback from four town hall meetings. From that process, seven prioritygoals were developed reflecting the most urgent recreation demands of thecitizens: (1) expansion of passive recreation areas, (2) land acquisition, (3)coordinating partnerships utilizing school, municipal, and county facilities,(4) increasing security, (5) increasing maintenance and renovations, (6)maintaining adequate staff, and (7) expansion of teen and young adultprogramming.
Once all of the data was gathered and analyzed, a report was publishedand its recommendations adopted by the County Commissioners. Fortu-nately, the Commission has remained dedicated to achieving the goals setforth in the adopted plan, while remaining fiscally cautious. This dedicationcan only be accomplished if the plan contains some level of flexibility.McKinney, Burger, Espeseth, and Dirken (1986) suggest, “If a long-rangeplan is not flexible and some regular, systematic procedure for revising theplan is not in place, then a long range plan will soon become useful only asan expensive paperweight” (p. 31). The strategic plan was the guidingfactor in key financial decision making and partnership development for thecounty.
Revenue Sources and Financing MechanismsThe organizational structure assigns a fiscal manager to oversee all
financial aspects of the Parks and Recreation Department. The fiscalmanager works closely with the Parks and Recreation Director of Opera-tions and the Director of Planning and Development. Gwinnett CountyParks and Recreation has identified and utilized numerous sources ofrevenue such as property taxes, Special Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST),grants, fees and charges, donations and sponsorships, as well as financingmechanisms such as bond and leasing agreements.
Property TaxMany public sector parks and recreation departments must compete for
funds with other departments within a municipality, county, or state.However, Gwinnett County citizens in 1986 passed a referendum thatestablished a county-wide recreation and parks system, as well as a county-wide one mill ad valorem property tax for recreation purposes. Prior to thisreferendum, recreation services were only available to 25% of the countycitizens. Crompton (1999) states, “Authority to levy taxes designated forthe exclusive use of park and recreation agencies gives them fiscal indepen-dence. It means that they do not have to compete directly with other
community tax-supported services to obtain resources from the generalfund” (p. 23). There are normally two sources for recreation agency taxingpower: (1) the enabling law that created them as special districts, and (2)the passage of a special tax levy for parks and recreation by the voters in theirjurisdiction. The latter applies to the Gwinnett County tax structure. Thetax levy is the primary source of revenue for recreation funding. The onemill tax levy for recreation cannot be increased without the passage of areferendum by the voters. Property taxes generated from this levy accountfor approximately 80% of the Recreation Fund’s revenue. The RecreationTax Levy also supports debt repayment, operations, and the CapitalImprovement Program. Due to the County’s property value update androllback, which offsets any revenue increases as a result of property valueupdates, the 2002 recreation millage rate was reduced to 0.86. Theanticipated revenues after value update and rollback is approximately $15million. Recreation millage adjustments not to exceed one mill may beenacted by a vote of the Commissioners. Table 1 provides total revenuescollected from a recreation tax levy first instituted in 1971 to 2002.
An examination of Table 1 illustrates significant increases occurring in1987 (100%) and 1992 (33%). The 1987 increase can be attributed to theaddition of the entire county’s property taxpayers, established by the 1986referendum, as well as a population growth rate from 1980 to 2000 of252%. Fallout from the tax revolt begun by Proposition 13 has been welldocumented by recreation researchers such as Crompton and McGregor(1994): There was a widespread perception that the tax limitation legisla-tion had a substantial adverse impact on the level of financial support forpark and recreation services throughout the United States” (p. 21).However, Gwinnett’s tax base appears to be strong and the citizenry havebeen committed to funding recreation and park services through theproperty tax.
BondsIn 1996, and again in 2000, Gwinnett County citizens voted in favor
of a four-year, one percent Special Local Options Sales Tax. Due to theutilization of this significant revenue source, the County transitioned fromthe issuance of revenue bonds to the Special Local Option Sales Tax forcapital financing in the 1990’s. Perhaps Gwinnett made this transition dueto revenue bond difficulties raised by Brayley and McLean (2001) identi-fying major challenges for issues such as agency confidence of sufficientrevenue to retire the debt and to operate and maintain the facilities. TheGwinnett County recreation bonds are considered revenue bonds backedby general government activity. As stated previously, the Gwinnett CountyRecreation Authority holds the power to issue revenue bonds. In 1992bonds were issued to provide funds to be used to refund all the Authority’soutstanding revenue bonds from 1987, 1988, and 1990, in order to securebetter interest rates. The 1992 series of bonds were issued in the amountof $31,340,000 and have a rating of Double A. The Recreation Authority
Table 1Recreation Fund—Summary of Tax Revenues
had an outstanding debt of $20,155,488 in 2002 from revenue bonds. Thefinal maturity for current debt is in the year 2010. All of the proceeds fromthe previous bond issues have been utilized, and the bond funds have beenclosed. The debt service on the bonds is being paid out of the RecreationOperating Fund. According to the County’s 2002 Budget Document,$2,502,901 is budgeted for debt service payments.
Special Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST)As mentioned previously, 1997 witnessed the emergence of the Special
Local Option Sales Tax in Gwinnett County, consisting of a one percentsales tax for four years. According to Crompton (1999), “Sales taxes are thelargest single source of state revenues and the second largest source of taxrevenues for municipalities after the property tax” (p. 18). Pagano (2002)suggests that 1992-2000 was an era of unprecedented economic growth inthe areas of local government capital expenditures and revenue generation.In Gwinnett’s case, the 1997-2000 revenues generated from the SpecialLocal Options Sales Tax provided $60 million, enabling park land acqui-sition totaling over 600 acres. The 2001 SPLOST allocated $192 millionfor parks and recreation capital projects. As of August 31, 2002, GwinnettCounty had purchased more than 3,000 acres of park land. Each time aSPLOST is passed, the Board of Commissioners has reduced the totalmillage rate by two mills. Thus, Gwinnett County citizens are enjoyinglimited property tax relief while County services and infrastructure aresignificantly improved. A study of Georgia local option sales taxes for 136counties over a 13-year period by Jung (2001) suggested that due to thestate law, which requires property tax rollbacks when local option sales taxesare enacted, actual property tax relief and millage rate reduction wereexperienced.
GrantsAlthough Gwinnett has a strong tax base with a tax levy dedicated to
recreation and SPLOST revenues, management continues to diversify itsrevenue sources. One major source has been the Georgia GreenspaceProgram, a statewide initiative to encourage counties to permanentlyprotect open spaces. In 2000-2001, the State granted Gwinnett Countymore than $3.3 million, with no match required, for the purchase ofhundreds of acres of greenspace. The goal of the Greenspace Program andGwinnett County is to make significant progress toward the goal ofpermanently protecting 20% of the County’s land acreage.
Fees and ChargesManning, Callinan, Echelberger, Koenemann, and McEwen (1984)
state, “If park and recreation services are to expand or even be maintainedat present levels, revenue sources beyond general and property taxes mustbe found. User fees can be an important source of additional revenue” (p.23). Since Gwinnett County Parks and Recreation administrators believe inpushing budgetary responsibilities and awareness as far down the organi-zational chart as possible, lower tier managers and staff re-examine current
fee structures for their respective programs and facilities while forecastingfuture expenditures, and then make recommendations to division directorsbased on need. Staff members working on the “front lines” are alsoperceptive to citizens’ feelings regarding fees who are participating inprograms and visiting facilities. The feedback management receives fromthese employees is extremely valuable and requires trust if this informationis intended to have an impact on the fee structure of the Department.Pricing may also be based upon similar qualities/quantities of services andfacilities in the commercial and non-profit recreation sectors. The missionof Gwinnett County Parks and Recreation Department is not to make afinancial profit. The only enterprise fund was eliminated in 2000, which wasa golf course, however, the Department maintains input regarding thedirection of public golf through the Gwinnett County Golf Commission.
Brademus and Readnor (1989) states, “While anecdotal evidencesuggests that declining tax revenues require increased fees and charges,there is a lack of evidence to support this contention” (p. 42). An exampleof this is Gwinnett County Recreation’s tax revenues, which are growing ata steady rate as illustrated in Table 1, however, fee revenues have steadilyincreased from 1988 through 2002, as illustrated in Table 2, due to
Table 2Fee Revenue History
increased quality of facilities and services, as well as continually increasingoperating costs. The citizens have also expressed a willingness, throughparticipatory planning activities, to pay for desired services and facilities.Thus, declining tax revenues are not a prerequisite for fee increases inGwinnett County.
Impact FeesGwinnett County Parks and Recreation administrators have experi-
enced some difficulty in relation to capitalizing on impact fees or dedicationof property in lieu of fees. Prior to the 1990’s, many developers, whilesetting aside land for recreation purposes according to County mandates,donated properties that were frequently inappropriate for public recreationactivities due to poor soil, slopes, accessibility, and other concerns. Due tothese characteristics, and the escalating costs to monitor and maintain theseparcels, the Parks and Recreation Department encouraged neighborhoodgroups, home associations, and businesses to take over these parcels ofproperty for a variety of uses such as neighborhood parks, industrial athleticfields, and trails. This method has been an effective in developing commu-nity partnerships and instilling feelings of ownership and responsibility inthe citizens.
OperatingThe Gwinnett County Parks and Recreation Department, has a unique
budget situation when compared to the majority of other metropolitan arearecreation agencies, because it has the Recreation Fund, which is primarilygenerated by the dedicated Recreation Tax Levy. Another key feature of theoperating budget policy mandates that revenues generated from recreationactivities be deposited into the Recreation Fund, not the County GeneralFund. One major complaint of many recreation administrators is that theylose virtually all of the revenue they generate to the general fund and thatthis process reduces their incentive for generating higher amounts ofrevenue. However, this can be misleading and the counter argument formany governing bodies would be that recreation agencies have been afinancial burden for many years and that it is the recreation manager’s dutyto generate as much revenue as possible to play “catch up,” and then makea good case at supplemental time for operating budget increases due to theextra revenues collected. The Parks and Recreation Department is orga-nized in such a way as to allow management a certain level of independence;however, with this independence comes a higher level of accountability,since their performance can be more directly assessed by examining theRecreation Fund Activities. Gwinnett County Recreation managementfeels that the feature of maintaining revenues generated in the operatingbudget promotes more fiscal responsibility and accountability.
A second key feature of the Gwinnett County Parks and Recreationoperating budget policy is that the end of the fiscal year does not result in
Table 3Recreation Fund Balance
the loss of unused funds. One has only to converse briefly with recreationmanagers to learn that as the end of the fiscal year approaches, line items arethoroughly examined and excess funds are quickly spent before the newfiscal year. Unfortunately, many managers feel that unspent money will benoticed by policy makers, assumed to represent a continuing surplus, andcut accordingly. Another justification by managers is that the end of theyear spendthrift is actually geared toward the next year’s budget. Projec-tions of supply needs for the next year are purchased. However, managersdo not always take this into consideration when proposing the new budget,and moneys will be earmarked for items that have already been purchased.This may result in a budget proposal that does not accurately portray thecost of providing recreation services. Because of the two unique budgetfeatures, the Recreation Fund balance performance illustrated in Table 3,reported in nominal dollars, is a fairly convenient way to determine thefinancial health of the Recreation and Parks Department.
An examination of Table 3 illustrates significant increases in expendi-tures from 1998-2002, confirming statements made by the RecreationFiscal Manager suggesting that due to the increased expenditures andstruggling economic conditions, the fund balance will begin to decline.
Using the fundamental equation for governmental organizations, whichis Assets = Liabilities + Fund Balance (Finkler, 2001), Gwinnett CountyParks and Recreation seems to be experiencing relative financial health.The County requires all larger departments to maintain two monthsoperating reserve, which totaled $3,417,122 in 2002. Operating reservesmay sometimes draw criticism from citizens who feel they are beingovertaxed; however, events such as September 11, 2001 and the resultingfinancial aftermath have allowed reserves to reduce negative impacts onfinancially conservative organizations and also to act as cash flow reserves.Also, 10% of recreation fund revenue is dedicated to the capital improve-ments program. Mandatory operating reserves and capital improvementcontributions may cause the operating budget bottom line to be slightlymisleading.
Two methods of planning for operating budget are used by GwinnettCounty Parks and Recreation: (1) minimum appropriation level (MAL),and (2) program modification requests. MAL is the funding required toprovide the current level of service. The program modification request is fornew or expanded services or equipment needs. These requests may increasethe current level of MAL in the following year. Gwinnett County Parks andRecreation Department’s operating budget is performance based, whichcan be labor intensive and technologically challenging. However, theresults can substantially improve financial health by holding departmentsaccountable in a systematic manner for their budgetary practices.
Purchasing rules can become a problem for many recreation and parksdepartments. However, Gwinnett Parks and Recreation Department islocated co-institutionally with the County Administrative offices thatindependently handles all bidding, contracts, and purchases, freeing recre-ation administrators from being placed in conflicts of interest and otheruncomfortable situations, while also limiting the amount of time spent withcontractors and vendors.
Another management practice Gwinnett Parks and Recreation engagesin is the privatization of services. The philosophy of recreation administra-tors is to privatize whenever it is possible with the stipulation being that thequality and quantity of the service being contracted out must be equal orgreater to current service levels. There are policies and procedures in placethat provide avenues of feedback regarding privatized service concerns byrecreation staff and is addressed and operated independently from theRecreation and Parks Department.
The capital planning process for Gwinnett County Parks and Recre-ation involves two aspects: operating contributions and special local optionsales tax revenue (SPLOST). Ten percent of projected total revenues foroperating must be contributed to capital. These funds are primarily used foron-going major maintenance and equipment needs, and additional oper-ating funds may be contributed to funding capital projects. Next, SPLOST
funding, after approval by the voters, is initially budgeted per annual cashflow projections to retire debt. According to the Fiscal Manager, theseannual amounts are adjusted as needed for timetable revisions. Theongoing impact on operations and maintenance for SPLOST projects isdetermined prior to submission of the referendum. This assures that thelevel of information available to the public is as high as possible, whileavoiding potential surprises. Before a SPLOST request is submitted to theBoard of Commissioners for consideration, a needs assessment and astrategic plan incorporating the projects must be completed, furtheranchoring the importance of the recreation planning process in all financialaspects of the department. The strategic plan is the guideline for capitalimprovements and land acquisition. For SPLOST programs, operating andmaintenance (O & M) are projected to determine what funding levels canbe afforded.
Forecast and Operating & Maintenance (O & M)Before the Parks and Recreation Department’s capital budget is
submitted, an internal forecast or guideline is developed. The forecastrequires updating prior year history, utility reports and other summariesand annualizing approved program modifications. O & M costs foruncompleted projects are reviewed, updated and linked to the forecastprojections. The data compiled provides the department with a controlguideline to address future operating impacts.
PartnershipsGwinnett County Parks and Recreation has developed and enhanced
a variety of partnerships that provide high impact services to the commu-nity. First, an eighteen-member park police force has been in existence sincethe 1990’s. Many agencies are forced to stress the quantitative benefits ofhaving such security resources, such as moneys saved from vandalism, theft,and other criminal activities. However, Gwinnett County Parks and Rec-reation emphasizes the qualitative benefits, such as the exposure of policepersonnel to members of the public to increase feelings of safety, andrelationships developed between police personnel and park users, includingmentorship to the youth. Houses purchased by the County adjacent toexisting parks are offered to police officers who agree to be on 24 hour callfor that particular park. The rent and utilities are absorbed by the Countyand become part of that officer’s benefits package. This type of interdepart-mental cooperation can be difficult to establish, however, Gwinnett has aPolice Chief and Recreation Administration that is dedicated to the idea ofa strong park police program. Another important partnership involves anumber of public schools that have a recreation staff member in the role ofassistant principal who is responsible for scheduling and supervising recre-ation activities in school facilities when they are not being utilized foreducational purposes. The school system and Parks and Recreation Depart-ment are committed to sharing and developing adjacent athletic facilities,both for recreation and school athletic activities and events, and this
dedication is stated in the recreation comprehensive master plan. These twoprograms accounted for roughly $1.5 million in 2002, and the funds aretaken from the Recreation Fund.
The Parks and Recreation Department also enters into lease agree-ments with numerous municipalities in Gwinnett County for the purposeof operating, supervising, and maintaining recreation facilities and services.While some municipalities have their own recreation and parks depart-ments, Gwinnett maintains healthy, productive relationships with many ofthem, as well as providing services and support. Finally, as with many otherlarger recreation and parks departments in Georgia, Gwinnett Countyyouth athletic programs are primarily organized and operated by youthassociations, who contribute funding for maintenance and facility improve-ments from the revenues generated.
The financial management practices adopted by Gwinnett CountyParks and Recreation Department are utilized by many public sectorrecreation agencies. However, what makes Gwinnett stand out is itsassembling a variety of best practices, public funding, support, and involve-ment, and a dedication to the participatory planning process culminatingin a recreation strategic plan that is regularly updated. The mandate that allsignificant capital projects be derived from this strategic plan promotesfiscal responsibility and accountability and eliminates the potential forsurprises. Maintaining a fiscally conservative philosophy while simulta-neously promoting social health and environmental preservation, all withthe full support of the public, is no small feat. Public recreation departmentsof all sizes may examine Gwinnett County Parks and Recreation manage-ment practices and philosophies to determine if they may simulate thesuccesses enjoyed by one of the best managed departments in the southeastUnited States.
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