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posted Spring 2004
There’s a wide gap between many of the suggestions that come out of the planners’ meeting rooms, and the day-to-day parks and recreation work. Take the idea of the planners wanting Parks and Recreation to be seen as a business, with consumer products, satisfied customers, and (at the heart of its structure!) a three-year business plan. Many of us wince at that approach, it seems so nutty. But if we were to take them at their word, how’s it going after six years of this business fantasy? (Remember, the business language came into fashion right after amalgamation).
A few examples: In 2003 this business was unable to collect a large amount of its accounts receivable:
From the Toronto Star, May 12: “City won't see $1M in rec fees, auditor estimates Users owe $4.5M for city programs, councillors told. Parks commissioner advises against harsh crackdown.”
Balancing the budget: In 2003 this business spent between $8 and $10 million more than it had. What’s more, the accounting system is such that the size of this disparity was not anticipated until late in the year.
From P.L.A.Y. Toronto: Since 1999, this business has spent $6.5 million destroying parks playground equipment and replacing it with dumbed-down playground equipment. The reason: an edict attributed to the Canadian Standards Association, a trade group that’s over 90 % manufacturers and barely half Canadian. In the process, Parks and Recreation broke its own rules for public consultation, and its crews removed equipment that the CSA didn’t ask for anyway.
Advertising and promotion, detailed examples from the city’s 51 outdoor artificial ice rinks:
1. This business has a rink “hot line” that only carries recorded messages and that leads the caller into constant dead ends when seeking information about ice conditions.
2. The telephone book’s blue pages rink listings have had all the individual rink numbers removed because this business has a policy saying that skaters must not have phone access to rink staff.
3. For most of the past rink season, individual rinks were not allowed to photocopy their skating schedule to give to users because of a division-wide edict to save money.
And the city web site has gaps: some sizeable parks are left off the park listings altogether. Information is often out of date. (To be fair, that’s not only the fault of this business. The corporation of the City of Toronto as a whole has a web site with over 20,000 static pages and no functioning search engine.)
Timely maintenance of facilities and equipment: this business has no-one assigned to check on state of good repair in the parks day-to-day. Examples from Dufferin Grove Park: in the case of park benches and tables, their staff often wait until the bench or the table collapses, and then take it away in the trash. In the case of our outdoor artificial ice rink, this business denied their rink users’ (customers?) request that the numerous cracks in the concrete slab (skating surface) be investigated now by concrete engineers. Instead they plan a general city-wide rink survey later on.
Tools: this spring, this business was not able to supply its park workers, not its park volunteers, with compost, fence posts, or wood chips, to take care of its park garden beds. This is on a budget of $160 million.
Allocation of resources:
Example #1: Dufferin Grove Park is crossed by two unpaved, rutted walkways, which get heavy use from residents walking through the park. This business has no money to pave them. Wheelchair users and people with strollers cannot use these rutted tracks in bad weather. Meantime, this business continues to spend $50,000 a year on the “Garrison Creek Project,” building “entrance features” into parts of city parks that lead to nowhere.
Example #2: A very popular indoor skateboard program in an inner-city recreation centre applied for funding to get better equipment. This business denied that request in favour of giving $70,000 to a consulting company to write a Parks and Recreation staff safety manual. The last Parks and Recreation safety manual done by this business is less than 10 years old and is used internationally.
Example #3: this business spends upwards of $2 million a year paying its planners to think up things in meetings, have training sessions, and do campaigns advertising the value of Parks and Recreation. If that same $2 million was used getting these same planners out into the parks and the recreation centres so they could actually learn the business by getting their hands dirty (some for the first time), there might be a net increase in the planners understanding their business.