Government can think creatively

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By John Barnhart

    In an era of tight budgets, the Bedford County Department of Parks and Recreation is doing something right. The staff are finding creative ways to fulfill their mission; and even improve the way they fulfill their mission, without asking the county’s taxpayers for more money.
    One of the good steps they’ve taken is the adaptive re-use of the old county nursing home building. The new nursing home, a state of the art design, was built several years ago to replace the old one, which was routinely operating under waivers because it no longer met state current standards for nursing homes. That left a perfectly good building vacant.
    Meanwhile, the parks and rec department’s old building, located in the city, was no longer adequate for its needs. Rather than asking the county to build the department a new home, it moved into the old nursing home building, which the county already owns. Interior modifications to adapt it to the department’s use were much cheaper than acquiring land and building something new. It also creates possibilities for new program offerings. The staff have some good ideas for how the commercial kitchen can be used. An outdoor deck, connected to the cafeteria, could be rented, providing a revenue source.
    Generating revenue from fees is another positive direction that parks and rec is taking. Instead of providing free stuff, people who can afford to pay pay, for activities that the department offers. This is expected to provide enough money to pay for the activities’ cost and provide money to assist those who can’t afford to pay, so nobody is left out.
    The skate park is one more good idea. It’s an excellent facility — Michael Stokes, the director of parks and rec says that it’s one of the top three built on the east coast. It was built entirely with private funds.
    I think this sort of creative thinking is something that government at all levels needs to employ. Don’t just demand more taxpayer money. Look for ways to accomplish the job with the funds that are already available to you, to get by with what you have. Maybe you can’t. Bedford County, for example had to build a new nursing home a few years ago. It was either do that, or get out of the nursing home business altogether. But maybe you already have resources available to you that can be repurposed or renovated.
    If you do need to build something new, or acquire something new that’s going to cost a lot, perhaps you can look into public-private partnerships to pay for it. Going back to Bedford County’s skate park, private money built a half-million dollar facility. None of this was taken out of taxpayer’s pockets via the government’s coercive power. The only resource the county provided was the land, which it already owned, and a tiny amount of maintenance. And, the very fact that private money was able to build it indicated that this is something that people actually wanted, not some bureaucrat’s idea of what people want.
    Finally, charge fees where appropriate. That’s not going to work everywhere. You can’t pay for law enforcement via user fees, for example. But rescue squads have been able to bring in revenue by billing people’s insurance for ambulance calls. It’s worked and nobody has been denied service because they can’t pay.
    One area where I think that fees would be appropriate is pay-to-play for high school sports. People who participate in county rec programs have to pay, and I think it would be reasonable to ask the families of high school athletes to pay the costs of this extracurricular activity. Ways could be found to subsidize kids from families that can’t afford to pay so that nobody is excluded for financial reasons. This may even provide a way to add additional team sports, like the lacrosse that some Forest athletic supporters wanted to add to the competitive sports line-up at JF a couple of years ago.
    I think that there are probably many opportunities for governments to find better ways of providing their services without digging deeper into taxpayers’ pockets. This era of tight budgets is a good time to get serious about doing that.