By Seth Richardson
Brown grass, dead soccer field turf, closed swimming pools and recreation centers, defunded museums… all dire consequences of the ongoing mistrust of Colorado Springs city government on the part of the People.
The defeat of the property tax increase was a stunning blow to the egos of the Council and a clear repudiation for business as usual, and the chickens are now headed for the roost as the Council buckles down to the task of actually balancing the budget (as opposed to the election campaign scare-tactics they’ve been engaged in).
The biggest problem with municipal bureaucracies (other than being stuffed with featherbedding bureaucrats interested only in protecting their own turf and paychecks as outlined in a previous column) is the lack of innovative thinking on the part of both hired bureaucrats and elected officials. Government is notorious for adhering to the “Not Invented Here” syndrome that causes government bureaucrats to reject any sort of market-based solution to anything because the bureaucrats didn’t think of it. This propensity to reject perfectly useful ideas based on the NIH paradigm is as predictable as the City Manager’s protectionism and self-interested rejection of pay cuts for all city employees.
The anodyne to such bureaucratic bungling and obfuscation is, happily, the Internet. Not only does it provide a potential solution to the parks and recreation funding conundrum, it also provides the venue whereby the People can bypass the bureaucrats and clamor for a good idea to be implemented without regard to who thought it up.
So, here’s the plan: The problem with parks and recreation funding is that people don’t trust that the City will use the taxes they pay to actually serve their parks and recreation needs. The practice of putting tax money into the General Fund and having the Council dispense it only works if the Council acts in ethical ways in accordance with their duty as public servants and allocates tax money in ways that the People find beneficial. The Colorado Springs City Council has abused its discretion in that regard to the point the public doesn’t trust them any more, and that’s a shame.
One of the problems with parks and recreation facilities is that people tend to use the facilities they live close to, or that provide services and amenities that they prefer. So, they tend to object to funding “someone else’s” park or swimming pool.
So, the free-market solution is to provide a way for people to support “their” parks and swimming pools and be certain that the money they are putting into the amenity is actually spent on something they actually use and enjoy.
An easy way to fund parks and recreation and help restore confidence in the Council is to set up a system that allows individuals to easily donate to their favorite park or recreational venue and that both guarantees and actually shows them that their money is being spent only on that venue. Earmarking donations is a way to stimulate people to support the facilities they use, and the Internet provides an easy way to accomplish this.
The City of Colorado Springs should set up an e-commerce website for Parks and Recreation funding. Each park or recreational facility should have its own web page that shows the park, the anticipated maintenance and operations budget, the amount donated and other information to persuade users to voluntarily donate money to keep it open and maintained. A “Donate” button would allow patrons to donate anything from fifty cents to a million dollars directly to a fund for that individual venue. The amount in the fund would appear on the page, and the operating budget would be subtracted from that amount to show whether there is a deficit or surplus for that park or pool.
An ordinance would be passed making it a legal requirement that funds donated for a specific venue be spent only on that venue, and that excess donations above operating costs would have to be sequestered and used only for improvements to that particular venue, not diverted to other financial needs.
In addition, the web page for each venue would have schedules and requests for volunteer assistance for maintenance, trash pickup, grass mowing and other community-building participatory events that would not only help create a sense of community and participation for users, but would reduce the operating costs. People could use the same site to “donate” their services by signing up on a calendar to perform maintenance or provide supplies or equipment (like lawnmowers, trash trucks, or other maintenance equipment), and companies could be solicited to “adopt” a park or pool and provide either charitable donations or manpower/equipment on a scheduled basis in return for on-screen recognition and even perhaps on-site recognition much like the “adopt a highway” signs one sees. Signs should be posted at each park advertising the website and asking for donations, and kiosks for cash donations on-site should be strongly considered. The city should undertake an advertising campaign to persuade voters to donate to parks and recreation, rather than trying to cling to power and control as they are wont to do.
This plan not only provides a funding and support mechanism for parks and recreation, it also gives the city a very good read on which parks and recreational venues are used and valued by the community. If a particular park languishes, and no one evinces any interest in supporting or donating towards its maintenance, then the city should begin a process of reviewing the venue with an eye towards selling it to private interests for development.
This “use it or lose it” plan would divest the city of recreational resources that are of little value to the public, and the public itself dictates which resources it values through its donations and participation in maintaining it.
Now, some will inevitably argue that parks and pools in poor areas will languish because the people cannot afford to donate as much as those in wealthy neighborhoods. This is a legitimate concern, which is why the process of deciding which parks and recreational resources are unnecessary must not be based on income alone, but also on other criteria such as not how much is donated, but how many people donated to the venue. Thus, a park in a rich neighborhood that gets five one thousand dollar donations should not be viewed as any more inherently valuable than one that gets a thousand one dollar donations.
One caveat: The NIH syndrome will likely encourage the city to try to develop this system “in-house,” or request some sort of custom-designed e-commerce system from a vendor that will purport to achieve every possible need the city can anticipate. This urge should be strongly resisted.
There are hundreds of e-commerce packages already on the market that can be easily adapted to this proposal, and the city should not spend more than about $5,000 at most to develop the basic site that would allow people to donate to their favorite park. All the additional features should be secondary to creating a site that lists every park and recreational venue and provides a “Donate” button and payment acceptance system within the next three months.
Once that basic system, using off-the-shelf e-commerce software/hosting has been created, additional features can be added as necessary. But it’s imperative that the city think out of the box on this and not try to overengineer what can be a quick, simple and effective way to obtain funding for parks and recreation.
© 2009 Altnews