Financing Priorities in Local Governments: Where Do Park and Recreation Services Rank?


  • Andrew T. Kaczynski
  • John L. Crompton


Local government, parks and recreation, repositioning, service priorities, budgets


This paper’s two objectives were to examine the financial status of parks and recreation compared with 9 other “competitive” services delivered by local governments, and to identify any shifts that may have occurred in the past decade. Examining shifts in budget allocations among the 10 “competitor” sectors was perceived to be an accessible surrogate for identifying the most pressing issues facing public decision makers.

The data set was derived from local government entities in the United States for the period from 1989-1990 to 2002-2003. These data are collected by the Census Bureau from all 87,000 units of local government in years ending in “2” or “7.” In the noncensus years, the data are collected from a survey of approximately 13,000 nonschool local governments, selected by a size-based sampling procedure.

The analyses revealed that only approximately one-fifth of the 140 (10 service areas by 14 years) annual change percentages exceeded 5%. When the analyses were undertaken on only operating budgets, even fewer annual change percentages of 5% or more were identified. As expected, capital budgets displayed substantially greater volatility.

Over the 14-year period of the analyses, real dollar budget allocations to parks and recreation increased by 63.2%, which was more than for any of the other 9 services. Despite the relatively large percentage gain over this period, parks and recreation services’ share of total local government expenditures in 2002-2003 was only 2.4%. This ranked it eighth among the 10 service areas, with only corrections and libraries receiving a lower proportion of the budget.

A primary conclusion was that percentage allocations to service areas remained relatively stable over the 14-year period. The stability may be attributable to incremental budgeting procedures and the inflexibility of civil service regulations, both of which make it difficult to shift substantial resources among service areas. Nevertheless, by examining expenditure trends across service areas in their home municipalities, it seems likely that park and recreation agency managers could gain valuable insights into how to better position their services in the community.