Parks payback: If we invest more, why aren’t we getting more? - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Parks payback: If we invest more, why aren’t we getting more?

While you're enjoying Illinois' parks, pause to picture the potential: newer playground equipment, more groomed trails and boat launches, and higher-quality programming—the results of dollars being redeployed from costly and duplicative administration. 

Image courtesy Crain's Chicago Business via Don Harder/Flickr

This article first appeared in Crain's Chicago Business on Aug. 28, 2018. 

Metropolitan Chicago’s recreational spaces are a jewel. The city of Chicago is nicknamed “Urbs in Horto”—City in a Garden—for its legacy of preserving and promoting green and open spaces.  Today, however, only 49 percent of people in our region have adequate park access, according to CMAP’s ON TO 2040 plan, and the equipment at many parks is degraded. Because residents value parks, we rightfully pay more for recreation in Illinois than the national average. 

In fiscal year 2015, Illinois governments spent nearly 80 percent more per person for parks and recreation functions (about $190 per person) than the nationwide average (about $107 per person), according to analysis by the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC). Of course, we live here because we expect much more than “average” parks. So what’s keeping our higher investment from translating into higher quality services? 

One driver of costs is the sheer number of single-purpose local governments supporting parks and recreation—there are 397 single-purpose units in Illinois maintaining parks. Further analysis by MPC shows that those single-purpose districts spend more money than other forms of local government that maintain green spaces. MPC compared parks and recreation spending for the three largest park districts in Cook County—Schaumburg, Skokie and Hoffman Estates—to spending on similar services by the three largest municipalities—Evanston, Orland Park and Park Forest—where there was no separate unit of government for parks. The combined per capita parks and recreation spending for the park districts (about $337 per person) was roughly double the amount for the municipalities without separate park districts (about $172 per person). This makes intuitive sense: As a separate unit of government, park districts have to purchase their own office space, lawn mowers and copy machines. If the park district is within a municipal government, they can share these assets. This is not unique to park districts—across Illinois, there are more than 3,200 single-purpose units of government, including over 830 providing fire protection and more than 340 managing libraries. These are critically needed services. But, if Illinoisans invest more per person than the nationwide average, the quality of these services should be proportionally higher.  

As a nature lover who enjoys hiking, biking and canoeing, I’m a vocal advocate of investing adequate tax dollars in our natural resources. But it riles me up if those dollars aren’t being used effectively and efficiently. This is one of the reasons that MPC is ramping up its commitment to tackling government effectiveness. MPC is fostering service sharing and consolidation of similar government functions in Illinois. That means questioning long-standing barriers to efficiency, working with the Transform Illinois coalition to lead the charge, conducting research and assisting local government leaders ready to be trailblazers. 

One way Illinois could spur a reduction of costly single-purpose governments would be to offer incentives to places that merge park districts with the municipalities they primarily serve. There are hundreds of potential candidates. Another efficiency strategy could include adjacent park districts, forest preservers, and conservation districts merging with their counterparts to gain benefits of scale.  

Some parks and recreation districts have already begun to voluntarily collaborate with each other to save money and enhance services. A July 2015 report from the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus on service sharing in Northeastern Illinois found that hundreds of local governments do so, including park districts on stormwater management, joint procurement of supplies, and physical assets like vehicles, equipment or storage facilities. The top two reasons cities service sharing were cost savings and operational efficiency. There is also evidence that shared services lead to better services overall. For example, the study documented that joint procurement led to improved quality in water treatment and fire protection dispatching.  

There are broader applications of shared services. Over 200 park districts and towns across Illinois have banded together to jointly provide recreation programs for their residents with disabilities. By pooling funding, participating parks and recreation areas offer more programing than they would be able to offer alone, giving everyone in their community access to quality outdoor recreation. For example, six suburban park districts in the Fox Valley area combine resources on over 600 inclusive programs and special events such as Special Olympics competitions.  

Late summer is a time when many relish outdoor activities in public green spaces across Illinois. While you’re there, pause to picture the potential: parks with newer playground equipment, more groomed trails and boat launches, and higher-quality programming … the results of dollars being redeployed from costly and duplicative administration. If service sharing can save money and enhance recreation, what are we waiting for?  

MarySue Barrett is president of the Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago.

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