In the past three years, Sparks Parks and Rec has lost 35 percent of its budget managing 1,200 acres of parkland, visited by 1 million people per year, encompassing 50 different city parks. Eager to get the public’s input, the department collected 517 online surveys gauging the community’s priorities before hosting workshops on back-to-back days at the Sparks Heritage Museum for even more input.
Thursday’s hands-on workshop tasked more than 20 people to analyze 23 services (including maintenance of various-sized parks and providing programs for youths, seniors and at-risk children) Parks and Rec manages, narrow them down to 12, decide which of those should require fees and where the leftover money would go. Sounds simple, right? It was not.
“I think right now it is really important because people don’t believe we’re in the state we are in,” Sparks Parks and Rec Director Tracy Domingues said about the process of funding services. “We have done such a good job of maintaining (services) to the best of our ability, and even though we are all breaking our backs, the public hasn’t felt the pain yet.
“It’s time. We can’t keep doing this. I am going to lose staff, I am going to lose resources and I can’t keep providing that level of service. They (the public) need to realize that this is a reality and they have to realize that we have to do less with less.”
Parks and Rec sought the help of MIG, the planning firm that conducted the recent citywide survey and also designed Golden Eagle Regional Park, to engage and collect public input during the workshops. MIG Project Manager Cindy Mendoza said Thursday citizens previously surveyed felt the city should cover half or more of the cost to operate programs such as aquatics, fitness, youth and adult sports, creative and fine arts and outdoor activities.
Mendoza said local citizens must realize the “hard reality that the city can’t do that.”
“Ninety three percent of the people who responded to the survey indicated that parks and recreation are essential services in promoting the quality of life in this area,” Mendoza said. “They are as important as fire or police and public safety because having those opportunities promotes health and wellness, reduces juvenile delinquency, brings people together and fosters a sense of a cohesive community.
“There are so many benefits provided through parks and recreation that the city would like to be able to do everything, but they have to do it in a way that is sustainable in the long term so they can continue to provide for the next 10 or 20 years and well into the future.”
Citizens participating in Thursday’s workshop largely suggested maintenance of community and large-scale parks, repairing deteriorating park amenities, volunteer programs and community wide festivals were important to keep funding. Many of the other supported programs, in the participants’ eyes, could be subject to fees to keep them going.
Domingues said having more than just City of Sparks staff and various business and community leaders work through the exercise helps Parks and Rec Department leaders determine where the public would like the money to go.
“It’s a tough resource to tap and I think it is really important,” she said of public opinion. “We are a public service. We are here to provide services to the community. We provide what we think they want, but we don’t know. So their input is really important.
“That is not to say we provide at a ‘You want it, here it is’ idea, but perhaps if we know what they want, we can make a shift and it will make us understand why something over here might not be doing as well as another program. We are pretty flexible and we are in the grey. We are not black and white. We really need that public input -- if they don’t tell us, we don’t know.”
After collecting the worksheets from the groups, Mendoza said she plans to work with her team to craft suggestions for Domingues and her staff for the comprehensive update and Master Plan. She said understanding that Parks and Rec’s goals “very much align” with those of the City Manager and City Council proves the importance of the department.
“We are realizing how closely parks and recreation is aligned with the other strategic planning goals the city leaders have set up,” Mendoza said. “Parks and recreation feeds into all of those whether it is promoting quality of life, supporting economic development, enhancing public safety or even making sure we are using resources sustainably and efficiently.
“We are approaching summer. We want to wait until September to make the final recommendations, so the public has a chance to view and comment on it before it is accepted into the Master Plan.”
The challenge of doing less with less still weighs heavy on Domingues’ mind and she said having Mendoza and MIG looking from a “bird’s-eye view” at her department’s operation helps identify what is being done well and what can be improved. Mendoza said though funds are limited and change is needed, there is plenty to be proud of.
“I work with a lot of different cities, some much larger than this, and I use the City of Sparks all the time as an example of finding success despite a large amount of cuts,” Mendoza said. “I am amazed by the amount of people who use their services because 1 million people per year is huge and very few cities are doing that.”