Budget shortfalls are nothing new to public agencies, and they're all too familiar to Michigan's Genesee County Parks and Recreation Commission (GCPRC).
“Governments everywhere are facing major financial crunches,” says Amy McMillan, who's overseen the agency for a decade, “particularly in Michigan, where the economy is exceptionally challenged.”
The commission gets fee income from campgrounds, RV park facilities, and a historical attraction under its care. But half of its budget comes from an operating millage that draws from property taxes. And with values having plummeted over the last several years, that pool of resources is hitting low tide.
“That millage revenue drop created such a large gap, we can't make it up just by bringing in more customers,” McMillan says.
In January 2009, the commission took a hard look at its budget to further tighten the belt, with two top-priority goals in mind: keeping full-time and seasonal jobs in place, and maintaining service levels. But as is the case with most public works budgets these days, there were no big cuts to make.
“There weren't any ‘million-dollar' ideas left,” says McMillan. “So we looked at how we could cut expenses in small increments. How do you eat an elephant? It's one bite at a time.”
McMillan called her team together for a brainstorming session, encouraging employees at every level to spout out ideas that would save just $10 a year. The group started the session with the aim of creating 60 ideas in 60 minutes. But when their hour was up, they'd generated 80 ideas, ranging from reducing the frequency of mowings in some areas, using e-mail rather than the U.S. Postal Service to share information, and letting field employees wear their own jeans rather than agency-purchased uniform pants.
A number of the ideas were put in place that, combined, were expected to save $40,000 over one year. Instead, they saved four times that: $167,000.
“Ten dollars is a small amount, but it's a number anyone can relate to,” McMillan says. “If you save $10 here, there, and everywhere, it really adds up.”
Employee buy-in continues to be strong, with staff taking the $10 plan to heart.
One such budget-conscious staff member is Jenny Blume. As office aide, Blume is in charge of ordering and doling out office supplies such as pens, pencils, and paperclips. Her diligence in saving money on such sundries is notorious.
“Every time I came across an item we needed to use, I started looking for the cheapest product, or the best value,” she says. “A lot of times people say, ‘My toner is low — I need a new cartridge,' but if you shake the toner, you can make it last a lot longer. When they ask ‘Can I have a Post-It?' I tell them, ‘You can have the cheaper knockoff-brand note.'” Blume's role as office-supply gatekeeper also means buying in bulk when possible, retrieving unused supplies from empty desks and returning them to the supply cabinet, and reusing office paper.
According to McMillan, constituent response to the money-saving ideas has been overwhelmingly favorable. The local newspaper and other media outlets have covered the ideas, with uniformly positive feedback.
“Often people are very critical of their government,” she says. “In this case, people see what we're doing and feel like the government is using their tax dollars wisely. And if we can save $167,000, ten dollars at a time, imagine what bigger agencies can do.”
— Jenni Spinner is a Chicago-based freelancer and former associate editor of PUBLIC WORKS
For a full list of the commission's $10 cost-cutting measures, click here.