Public Park Management

As many of you know, my company privately operates public parks and recreation areas.  With costs 50-70% lower than government management, one would think that private operation would be on the table as an option when government recreation budgets face shortfalls**.  However, this is seldom true.  The reason is that you will almost never, ever, ever hear discussion of efficiency improvements in any discussion of public park budgets.  100% of any such discussion will be "how do we find new revenue streams", even when those revenue streams are one or even two orders of magnitude smaller than potential efficiency gains.  When costs have to be cut, they are cut solely by closures and service reductions.

Which is why I smiled when I read this article about Connecticut State Parks sent by a reader:

The effects of state budget cuts will soon be felt at Connecticut’s 109 state parks, including cutbacks in lifeguard staffing and park maintenance and the closure of three state campgrounds.

The $1.8 million in reductions to park operations will take effect after the July Fourth holiday weekend, and Robert Klee, commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said he expects additional cost-cutting steps next spring. DEEP faces an overall $10 million reduction in funding from the state’s general fund.

“By carefully analyzing how and when the public uses our state park system, we will achieve the savings we need while keeping much of what we offer at our 109 parks open and available to the public,’ Klee said.

But park advocates argue these reductions point to the necessity of identifying additional revenue streams to help fund the parks.

“This just underscores the need for these sustainability funds,” said state Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr., the Democratic co-chairman of the legislature’s Environment Committee. Kennedy and other lawmakers have proposed concepts over the years such as expanded park concessions, a tax on disposable plastic bags, higher park rental fees and sponsorships.

The only cost reductions discussed in the article are reductions in service days and hours.    If one were in private industry, one would approach this by identifying all the activities performed by the organization, such as bathroom cleaning and landscaping, and then look at benchmarks to see if others do it less expensively and then try to figure out how they do it less expensively and determine if those methods could be copied.  None of this ever occurs in the public sphere.  The several times I have suggested it in senior meetings, for example in California, the whole room goes quiet and looks at me like I am insane.


** In reality, every single government agency running parks has a shortfall, even when their budget is balanced.  Why?  Because virtually no agency, including the big ones like the National Park Service or California State Parks, fully cover all of their capital maintenance costs.  All these agencies have growing deferred maintenance accounts, even when they claim that budgets are nominally balanced.


  1. mlhouse:

    Well, that is how it is always done. "Budget shortfall"----->>> reduced service ----->>>> political pressure to increase budgets.

    There are lots of names for this process, but I call it the "Barney Syndrome". Whenever the budgets of public broadcasting has been threatened their defense is that this will mean less Barney and/or Sesame Street. This, remarkably, changes the debate from the waste and mismanagement to "we need Barney and Sesame Street for the children".

    It apparently never occurs to the taxpayers that any executive of a organization like Corporation for Public Broadcasting can only think of cutting Barney and Sesame Street in a modest cost cutting (usually just 2-3%) isn't fit to be the executive of ANY organization.

    But they get away with it, and will continue to repeat this process until the public catches on.

  2. marque2:

    PBS/NPR's argument in this regard has been weakened considerably now that Sesame Street is on HBO.

    But it is amazing that we use federal funds to subsidize very profitable corporate entities. I believe Sesame Street is a billion dollar a year industry. Thomas the the Tank sells 300 million in toys every year, etc - and their advertising is all subsidized by PBS in the form of payments for the "shows"

  3. Rich A:

    Anytime privatization is suggested in Connecticut for state-run campgrounds, beaches, state parks, etc., the state employee unions (the true power in blue state CT) go crazy and the Democrat controlled house and senate use the same false union mantra that services will suffer and costs will skyrocket. Apparently to them, closing them is preferable then going against their union masters.

  4. Johnnyreb:

    CT will never privatize anything, trust me on this, State Employee Unions are extremely powerful and will block any attempted changes. We lived in Connecticut form 1995 through 2012 before moving South. While we lived there they passed two of the largest tax increases in State history and now they are cutting services. Apparently those massive tax increases were not enough.

  5. Dan Wendlick:

    And even the efficiency discussion begs the question of whether a state the size of Connecticut requires 109 state parks to fulfill the mission of preserving wildlife and providing recreation (two goals often at odds with one another) or whatever the wording of the agencies mission statement is.

  6. DirtyJobsGuy:

    The problem in CT is not overstaffing or pay as such but that what fees they get are not "lockboxed". Most CT parks are unstaffed with a parking lot and some pit toilets. Few offer camping or beaches and they do charge admission. I'm pretty sure the current costs are covered by user fees pretty well. The problem is that these, plus hunting/fishing license fees are grabbed for political green projects much as gas taxes are robbed to subsidise metro north trains to NYC! 30 years ago when our nominally republican Gov Lowell Weiker gave us an income tax, they closed the parks during a budget crunch. As this included parks with no staffing a minor public rebellion occurred to open gates with bolt cutters.