Using Stimulus Funds for Parks

Readers of the B&G Report respond to the idea of using federal stimulus dollars for quality-of-life projects.
April 9, 2009 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
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Back in February, the B&G Report raised the issue of stimulus dollars going to various quality-of-life oriented construction and maintenance projects in cities and counties -- specifically parks and municipal golf courses. As regular readers know, this conjured up a remarkable amount of commentary from readers. Here's a sampling of 10 of the more interesting e-mails, in full or excerpted:

From Ben Orsbon, special project coordinator for the Office of the Secretary, South Dakota Department of Transportation

Beyond the immediate employment benefits, the real key to making the stimulus money productive is being able to answer the following question about each expenditure in the affirmative: Is this a long-term investment which will lead to increased productivity, output and future economic growth?

From Drew Fixell, mayor, Tarrytown, New York

During an economic downturn of this magnitude, state and local governments are not able to pay for any number of otherwise worthwhile projects, and it is precisely and solely the role and responsibility of the federal government to do just that. It is only the federal government that can and should stimulate the economy as a whole, and paying for projects the localities are "unwilling" to pay for themselves is one tool in its arsenal. Moreover, even if the local government was "willing" to pay, that would result in an immediate increase in local taxes -- hardly the policy option called for at the moment.

The determination of whether any particular project is worthy (or more worthy than another project), however, is an entirely different matter, with numerous objectives and criteria that must be considered. For example, while building a park may in fact generate more jobs in the short run than paving roads, paving a road may provide long-term efficiency benefits that ultimately outweigh the park's short-term advantage. On the other hand, paving the road may encourage increased automobile traffic and consequently increase our reliance on imported oil, generate greenhouse gasses and discourage mass transit, so perhaps it's not such a great project after all. And this is a gross oversimplification, which is exactly the point.

From Clifford M. Lippard, associate executive director, Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations

I guess my thought on spending stimulus money on roads rather than golf courses is that roads are easier to defend as public goods. The market can provide for golf courses. Government shouldn't build them just because they are profit centers. Of course, I realize that the point of the stimulus spending is largely to create jobs; however, why not try to create those jobs while providing public goods rather than private goods? Also, I would much rather see the stimulus money spent on creating mass transit alternatives than on roads.

From Gregory S. Bruggeman, aquatic supervisor for city of Elgin, Illinois

Spending for golf courses and parks cannot and should not be considered "silly" spending. Parks and open space provides positive externalities that cannot be measured. Providing an afterschool golf program for teenagers not only provides an alternative for such possible consequences as teenage pregnancy, gang related crimes, obesity, and drug and alcohol use, it also teaches about rules, hard work, and other virtues. The alternative to funding parks is to funding social assistance programs such as drug and alcohol assistance programs."

From Jim Wavada, solid waste planner for the Department of Ecology, Spokane, Washington

Using stimulus money to subsidize a conventional golf course would be a questionable contradiction of the administration's commitment to environmental stewardship and energy efficiency. The enormous amounts of potable water, the energy to pump it around and all the fish-toxic nutrient inputs to keep putting greens and fairways perpetually green all fly in the face of any common notion of environmental stewardship.

That said, I do see an approach to this that would encourage development and help expand opportunities to participate in golf while demonstrating environmental stewardship. It all depends on what kind of golf course you talk about developing. There are innovators in golf course design who are constructing beautiful, award winning courses, around instead of over natural wetlands and wildlife corridors. In my own city of Spokane, WA., our wastewater treatment plant is sending treated wastewater to two municipal courses rather than discharging it into the river. We have a phosphorous problem that makes the water bad for fish, but pretty good for grass. So the way I see it, if the stimulus project money were committed to building golf courses that are a dramatic departure from the conventional approach and that demonstrate what can be done with thoughtful design, then I'd be very supportive.

From Rex Burkholder, councilor, Oregon Metro Government

The debate here in Oregon (concerning transportation oriented stimulus) is that concern with short term job creation (versus long term economic impact) is resulting in our Transportation Commission choosing to fund mostly pavement preservation projects in rural areas, far from the population centers with most of the unemployed people. In 3 years the roads will be rutted again and all that we can point to is that we had more people waving flags the summer of 2009, but have not gotten any long term economic benefit out of these capital intensive projects.

From Stewart Nelson, retired mayor, Morrilton, Arkansas

President Dwight Eisenhower along with congress built the Interstate highway system to help get us out of an economic slump. What if he had spent the money on parks instead of the Interstate? The highway system in Kansas helps the people in Virginia, but a Kansas golf course only helps the people in maybe a 20 mile radius who play golf, and it probably only alleviates the crowding at another course. Money spent for roads, sewer systems, water systems, and storm water systems will pay the communities back for 50 years which is how long at least the taxpayer will be paying for these projects. We got into this mess by buying things we could not afford to pay back, the country with this stimulus package will be doing the same thing. Let's be sure that what we buy will help everybody and last as long as it can. Personally, I would turn all golf courses into community gardens and make a real impact in our communities.

From Bob Schilling, partner at the coaching and consulting firm of Schilling & Maure, Long Beach, California

I live in Long Beach, in Los Angeles County, where municipal and county golf courses frequently charge nominal greens fees -- $20 or less. Angelinos don't seem to find that unreasonable. Municipal parks and the County Regional Parks have no admission charges, partly because the parks are a civic amenity designed for family use - a place where people of any economic level can come to enjoy the outdoors, barbecue, and engage in a wide variety of sports (including afternoon naps). Golf courses benefit that subset of citizens called "golfers." Lots of people fit this description, so it makes sense to have low-cost municipal and County facilities. Parks, on the other hand, benefit everyone, even those who don't use them. As a result, we all share their costs.

From Jeff Hull, assistant town manager, Wilmington, Massachusetts

In my opinion the stimulus money should be used exclusively for infrastructure and public building projects. First, rebuilding roads and bridges, sewer and water lines, police stations, fire stations, town halls and schools, for example, will address projects that have been deferred for too long due to lack of state and local financial resources and for other reasons. The stimulus funds create a window of opportunity to address important capital projects. That window will not remain open for long. Second, these projects will engage the construction industry which will promote jobs in addition to fostering the purchase of materials and supplies. While communities will still need to be prepared to set aside money for maintenance of these capital projects the investment will have long-term benefits.

Simply using the money to restore personnel or re-start programs only delays the inevitable. Sure there is a chance that the economy will "catch fire" in the next couple years and tax revenue will start flowing back to municipalities. The more realistic scenario is that economic prosperity will return slowly. When the stimulus spigot is turned off in 2011 communities will once again be faced with addressing unsustainable operating costs funded through stimulus money that no longer exists.

From William C. Beckner, president, CEHP Incorporated, Chevy Chase, Maryland

I am a consultant for Parks and Recreation throughout the United States. In my experience there are very few jurisdictions that maintain their parks in a sustainable manner. The result is that the parks and the amenities such as roads, parking, athletic fields, buildings, and similar deteriorate at a rate faster than they are repaired or maintained, causing a "Maintenance Deficit." Please note that the same "Maintenance Deficit" exists in jurisdiction roads, bridges, sewer and water systems and public buildings. Most of these systems including the parks were built in the 60's and 70's using federal dollars with the assumption that the jurisdictions would pay for the maintenance. Generally, that has not happened. I recall a report indicating that the National Park Service by itself had a "Maintenance Deficit" in excess of 13 billion dollars. State, regional, county and city parks are many times that. In addition, the work needs to be done in every jurisdiction making it the ideal stimulus distribution point. Further there are numerous opportunities for Young Adult Conservation Corps (YACC) or Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) type programs to employee and train young people from 16 to 25 years of age. Thank you for the opportunity to comment.