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Multi-municipal partnerships provide needed recreational opportunities to residents practically and affordably though the sharing of services, equipment and personnel.
***The Pennsylvania Land Trust Asssociation did not develop this guide. The content is provided courtesy of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Pennsylvania Recreation & Parks Society.***
In the 21st century, residents in many communities expect their local governments to offer a variety of recreational services. That’s why thousands of Pennsylvania local governments are choosing to provide recreational opportunities such as playgrounds, trails, community parks, swimming pools and ballparks.
Although recreational facilities offer a tremendous value to the community and its residents, they can also come with hefty construction and maintenance costs. Since the public is not restricted by political boundaries when in search of safe forms of recreation, a local government may choose to work with one or more other local governments to provide a variety of recreational opportunities to residents.
Pennsylvania municipalities that invest in park areas and recreation programs are creating opportunities to enhance citizens’ well being, improve the local economy, conserve the natural environment and strengthen the community.
Yet, despite the tremendous benefits of municipalities providing recreational opportunities, the reality is that such amenities can be costly, difficult to maintain or perhaps impractical for a given community. Multi-municipal cooperation can make providing such recreational amenities more realistic and affordable.
Cooperation among municipalities makes sense for a variety of reasons and for a variety of purposes, but there are three major benefits or reasons that intergovernmental cooperation is pursued:
Most of the activities affecting citizens don’t follow municipal boundaries. Environmental, economic, social issues all transcend municipal boundaries, connecting communities with one another based on a variety of needs, concerns and potential solutions.
Economic Dependence - A citizen may live in one municipality, work in a second and shop in a third. The economic life of a resident is lived as part of the economic market area, not just the municipality where he or she happens to live. A citizen’s home value, job, wages, and the price and availability of goods and services are dependent upon this economic system. The decisions of a municipal government that affect the economic system affect not only its residents but the residents of other municipalities.
Crossing Municipal Boundaries - Many agencies and activities cut across municipal boundaries and tie us together into larger communities. Membership and participation in churches, civic clubs, volunteer fire companies and other activities aren’t limited by municipal boundaries. School districts often include more than one municipality, some many more.
Municipal services can be more effective when municipalities work together. Region-wide recreation programs are an effective way to provide services to citizens. Citizens may be interested in a wide variety of recreation programs. However, a municipality offering an extensive schedule of programs on its own may not have enough citizens interested to support even one program, much less the whole list of activities. If municipalities join efforts, the opposite can happen. There are enough citizens interested in participating in a variety of planned programs.
Regional recreational programs enable neighboring municipalities to share resources and expenses and avoid competition for program sponsorship, volunteers, staff, specialized instructors and participants. Through multi-municipal programs, services can be improved and increased at a lower cost, because indirect costs and administrative expenses are shared by the municipalities. Money can also be saved by coordinating the purchase of park maintenance equipment for use by the region. Most small communities lack the tax support, business and community resources to finance expensive recreation facilities and programs. The funding from the municipalities provides the stable, ongoing base of support to build upon to develop facilities and offer programs. A regional agency can also address safety issues, risk management and insurance concerns more efficiently.
The language of Act 177 is very broad. It includes any function, power or responsibility that a municipality may have. In other words, if a municipality has the power to take an action or deliver a service under the provisions of its code or charter, it has the power to cooperate in doing so. The exercise of this power is the responsibility of the municipal governing body.
Pennsylvania’s Intergovernmental Cooperation Law (Act 177) allows municipalities to work together by adopting an intergovernmental agreement or establishing a Council of Government (COG). An agreement enacted under Act 177 is a legal contract among two or more municipalities. The terms of the written agreement are whatever is negotiated among the participants, subject to the requirements of the law. Act 177 agreements can be 1) a purchase of service contract or 2) a joint agreement to share ownership and control of a service.
The Municipality Authorities Act of 2001 (Act 22 of 2001) authorizes the creation of municipal authorities by two or more local governments. These are termed joint authorities. Joint authorities received their main impetus in the 1970's when the federal Environmental Protection Agency embarked on a program of regionalization of municipal sewage treatment facilities.
Joint authorities are most often used when major capital investments are required. In addition to sewage treatment, joint authorities have been formed for water supply, airports, bus transit systems, swimming pools and other purposes. Joint authorities have well-established powers to receive grants, borrow money and operate revenue-generating programs. The Municipality Authorities Act specifically enables authorities to sell bonds, acquire property, sign contracts and take similar actions. Handshake agreements do not convey such powers; Act 177 agreements do so only when the agreements are specifically drafted to do so.
In contrast to Act 177 agreements, joint authorities must be governed by authority board members appointed by the elected officials of the member municipalities. Once appointed, the decision-making power is vested in the board members. This can be a disadvantage in the view of some elected officials, since they may disagree with authority actions but have no control over those actions.
The Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code, Act 247 of 1968 as amended (MPC), establishes the authority for municipalities to exercise land use controls through comprehensive planning, subdivision ordinances and zoning ordinances. The Department of Community and Economic Development publishes copies of the MPC, including the most recent amendments, and can provide technical assistance and informational services to municipalities. Act 68 of 2000 amended the MPC to specifically authorize municipalities to engage in cooperative planning activities and to enter into joint cooperation agreements in accordance with Act 177. The MPC strongly advocates coordination of the planning function between and among adjacent municipalities. Municipalities can approach matters on a regional basis in two different ways – informally or formally. Informal arrangements can be made at any time on an ad hoc basis on any issue. Formal cooperative arrangements are more binding and require the adoption of an intergovernmental cooperation agreement.
In addition, the MPC has several provisions that require coordination of specific municipal planning activities. The coordination provisions are incidental to regular municipal planning activities, and include requiring, as part of the municipal comprehensive plan, a statement indicating the relationship of the municipality and its proposed development to adjacent municipalities; and mandating notice to an adjacent municipality if an official map is adopted which shows a street or public lands leading into that municipality. Not only are these actions required; they are good ideas and can become the basis for further coordination and cooperation.
From a handshake agreement to sharing park maintenance equipment to a written intergovernmental agreement to form a regional agency, there are many approaches to municipalities working together to provide residents with quality recreation and parks services.
Approaches to take depend on what exists in the community. You may have a recreation board that provides programs for the region with the help of a part-time director. Summer programs may be provided for the municipalities by your school district. Your local park may be operated by a volunteer board of residents from a number of municipalities. These services can be the foundation to build upon to expand recreation and parks cooperation for your region. Some municipal officials believe their municipality is too small (or too big) to work with a neighboring one that is much bigger (or smaller). Size differences are often an excuse for avoiding intergovernmental cooperation, but with proper organization and fair allocations of cost and responsibilities the differences are easily overcome.
Many municipalities have unwritten working arrangements with other municipalities and school districts. These agreements are usually simple and limited in scope. For example, a city parks department lends a tree spade to a township for a few weeks and borrows a sign cutter from the township in return. Often the arrangement is worked out between employees with no action by the governing body, and continues year after year.
The informality of handshake agreements can be good and bad. The informal approach may be the only way municipalities can work together. A written commitment may be threatening to the participants. On the other hand, if there is nothing in writing, misunderstandings and problems can occur. This is especially true when the staff involved in handshake agreements leave their positions.
When one municipality offers recreation and parks services, it can contract with a neighboring municipality to provide the services to that muncipality’s citizens. The cost and length of the contract is negotiated. The purchasing municipality’s responsibilities and control are limited; however this may be attractive for municipalities with limited resources. And, there is a definite advantage to buying services if the providing municipality has a top-notch recreation and parks department.
Municipalities often charge non-residents higher fees to participate in recreation programs. A municipality may contract recreation program services from another municipality so its residents can receive reduced fees. Park maintenance can be an expensive undertaking for a small municipality with limited park acreage. The most economical way to maintain park areas may be to contract maintenance services from a neighboring municipality.
The nonprofit Ephrata Recreation Center (Lancaster County) is an example of an independent non-profit organization providing recreational services, through a contractual agreement, to several municipalities including one school district. The center has served a multi-municipal community for over 60 years. Its mission is to improve the quality of life by providing wholesome, affordable recreation opportunities to the citizens of the Ephrata area.
The Ephrata Recreation Center is a 65,000 square-foot recreation facility that includes an indoor pool, spa, gymnasium, fitness center, racquetball courts, game room, snack bar and assembly hall. Its operation is membership driven and offers recreation programs to both members and non-members.
The agency has a contractual agreement with Ephrata Borough that supplies the labor and equipment to manage, maintain and program a 400+ acre park system comprised of community parks, neighborhood parks, three outdoor swimming pools, athletic complex, archery range and summer playhouse theatre. The agency also maintains the Ephrata Area School District athletic fields under contract. The four municipalities within the School District (Ephrata and Akron Boroughs and Clay and Ephrata Townships) contract with the Ephrata Recreation Center to provide summer youth recreation programs in their parks at little or no cost. Under another contractual agreement, the Ephrata Recreation Center manages Denver Borough’s outdoor swimming pool complex.
In addition to purchase of service contracts, Act 177 agreements can be enacted so that two or more municipal governments and school districts can work together to cooperatively fund a community recreation and parks agency that serves residents of each municipality. A board of directors is appointed that represents each partner. The level of funding from the municipalities is based on an agreed-upon formula spelled out in the intergovernmental agreement of cooperation.
The major reason municipalities form regional recreation commissions (or agencies) is to assemble a tax and population base that can support full-time recreation and parks services. Regionalizing allows small communities to develop recreation facilities and programs and hire staff that none of them could afford by themselves.
Municipalities determine the scope of a regional commission, which can range from recreation programming to developing trails, operating a large park complex and managing a community swimming pool. Regional recreation agencies have policy-making and implementation powers but don’t have taxing authority.
Regional recreation commissions are composed of elected officials and appointed citizens. Most focus on recreation programming needs and may oversee the acquisition and development of park areas for each member municipality. Regional recreation commissions sometimes operate facilities like community centers and swimming pools. Less often, they merge park maintenance functions. Municipal partners usually retain ownership of their park areas and recreation facilities. They may maintain separate advisory recreation and parks boards and still be part of a regional recreation commission.
Municipalities can become partners in existing regional recreation agencies. This often makes good sense, especially when the municipality is part of the same school district and the school district is already a partner. Competition among municipalities for use of school facilities doesn’t work.
Two of Pennsylvania’s third class cities, Lancaster and Latrobe, have benefited from multi-municipal cooperation for many years. The Lancaster Recreation Commission (Lancaster County) and Latrobe Parks and Recreation Board (Westmoreland County) both have well-established services with close ties to their school districts. In each city, the school district helps to fund the recreation agencies. Lancaster Township joined its larger municipal neighbor in 1991 to become a partner of the Lancaster Recreation Commission. In 2004, Unity Township joined its smaller neighbor to create the Latrobe-Unity Parks and Recreation Commission. In both cases, the townships were part of the same school district as the cities. Instead of trying to offer recreation and parks services on their own, they strengthened the services being provided right next door.
Councils of governments or COGs are general purpose intergovernmental organizations.
COGs are established to allow a group of municipalities to work together on whatever programs are in their mutual interest. COGs differ from the typical joint recreation agency in several ways.
Municipalities working together may start out with one or more intergovernmental agreements and then establish a COG to oversee these activities. Or, the municipalities may begin by organizing a COG and then develop cooperative programs.
A council of governments is both a method of cooperation and a cooperative program in itself. A COG is established as a coordinating organization. It does this even if it does not provide specific programs. The organization, form and procedures of a COG are determined by the participating municipalities.
Most of the issues discussed in this publication for the creation of multi-municipal recreation agencies are the same if the organization is to be a council of governments. The DCED Intergovernmental Cooperation Handbook contains more information on COGs.
According to the Pennsylvania Association of Councils of Governments, Pennsylvania currently has 85 active COGs. Of these, 12 COGs have active recreation or parks programs.
The Municipality Authorities Act of 1945, amended in 2001, authorizes the creation of municipal authorities by two or more local governments. The cooperating municipalities appoint authority board members. Authorities are designed to pay their financial obligations from revenues of the facilities they operate.
Joint authorities are most often used when major capital investments are required such as sewage treatment and water supply systems, airports, bus transit systems and swimming pools. Recreation authorities often struggle financially to be self-supporting; many receive some municipal subsidy in addition to the revenues they generate.
Joint authorities are governed by authority board members appointed by the elected officials of the member municipalities. Once appointed, the board members have decision- making power. Elected officials can view this as a disadvantage, since they may disagree with authority actions but have no control over those actions. And ultimately, municipal partners are responsible for the financial obligations of an authority.
A comprehensive plan establishes where recreation and parks, as well as public safety, transportation, public works and other matters, fits in the big picture of your community. In most areas of Pennsylvania, it is better to do community comprehensive planning by studying a regional area like the municipalities within a school district, rather than a single municipality.
A comprehensive recreation, park and open space plan is an in-depth study that focuses on developing and improving your municipal recreation and parks programs, services, facilities and natural resources. It is created with significant public input and covers a number of years to give guidance and direction to make decisions. DCNR provides matching funds to help cover the cost to prepare comprehensive recreation, park and open space plans. It also encourages multi-municipal plans. Pennsylvania’s regional recreation agencies can undertake comprehensive recreation, park and open space plans for their regional areas.
Greenway and trail networks cross multiple municipal jurisdictions. A county greenway and open space plan identifies a greenway network for each county, provides a context for more local greenway project planning and includes opportunities for connections beyond county borders.
Sharing is an excellent way for municipalities to begin working together. Municipalities can jointly purchase and share an expensive piece of park maintenance equipment that is not used every day.
Smaller municipalities may join together to develop a community park. Larger ones may combine efforts to build and operate a swimming pool. Two rural communities may use road maintenance equipment and volunteer labor to clear and level a ball field. At little cost, two cooperating municipalities can create a valuable facility for their residents. Several suburban municipalities might combine their resources to construct an indoor community recreation center including swimming pools, a teen lounge, gymnasium, fitness area, a performing arts stage and banquet areas. A major facility like this is very costly, but combining the revenues from income-producing activities at the center and the financial resources of the participating municipalities could make it feasible.
A number of factors affect the decision to share recreation facilities. These include identified needs of the community, public and private facilities already in place and the size of the population to use and support the facility. Combining resources enables communities to consider facilities not within their reach as separate municipalities. Shared recreation facilities can be sports field complexes, children’s play areas, basketball courts, swimming pools, recreation centers, ice skating rinks, jogging/walking trails, outdoor amphitheatres, tennis courts and picnic pavilions.
Regionalizing recreation, parks and conservation services is not an easy process. In fact, it can be very challenging. Many intergovernmental cooperation efforts fail because local officials don’t lay a sound foundation for their cooperative efforts.
The idea for regional cooperation may come from staff, the recreation and parks board or a community group. Early on, get elected officials involved in and supportive of the idea. Otherwise, a great amount of effort can be wasted on developing a cooperative program that may not get its final approval for funding from the key decision-makers, the municipal elected officials.
To get off to a positive start:
If you are considering regional recreation services, the DCNR Bureau of Recreation and Conservation peer-to-peer technical assistance program can help. This community recreation and parks consulting service matches a professional with training, knowledge and experience in regional recreation with your area.
While a few communities have created multi-municipal recreation agencies on their own, most take advantage of this peer program.
Because the peer lives outside the region, he or she is an impartial, neutral facilitator with nothing to personally gain. Since the peer has a thorough understanding of recreation and parks, he or she is also able to educate people about this local government service.
A peer project explores the advantages and disadvantages of cooperating to provide recreation services. For some municipalities, it makes sense to cooperate. For others, it may not. Manheim Central region municipalities (Lancaster County) had never cooperated with each other when they joined forces to do a regional comprehensive plan. The planning process helped municipal leaders understand the benefits of working together. A comprehensive plan recommendation to form a regional parks and recreation agency in cooperation with the school district resulted in a peer study which successfully created a regional parks and recreation commission
The first step is to contact your DCNR Regional Recreation Advisor to discuss the project. He or she will determine if a peer project is the best course of action and help to develop a scope of work that meets your community’s needs. A maximum grant amount of $10,000 is provided by DCNR. The communities provide at least a 10 percent cash match for a total project cost of up to $11,000. DCNR considers peer project applications at any time of year.
The application is easy to complete. Visit DCNR’s website at dcnr.state.pa.us for a list of DCNR Bureau of Recreation and Conservation regional offices (LIBRARY ITEM) and for a copy of the general information and guidelines for peer-to-peer applicants (LIBRARY ITEM).
The Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code (Act 247) establishes the authority for municipalities to create joint municipal planning commissions. The function of a joint planning commission can be to do planning work for the municipalities, to prepare a joint comprehensive plan and to encourage the cooperation of the participating municipalities. DCED publishes copies of Act 247, including the most recent amendments.
There is considerable overlap of efforts in the preparation of community comprehensive plans and comprehensive recreation, park and open space plans. Regions that can merge these two processes will save money in plan preparation and have better coordinated land use and recreation policies.
State agencies are not only encouraging municipalities to plan together; they are providing the funds to pay for it. Funding from the DCNR Community Conservation Partnership Program can be combined with DCED funds. In addition, a greenway and trail network plan can be merged with a multi-municipal comprehensive plan or regional comprehensive recreation, park and open space plan process. Greenways and trails naturally cross municipal boundaries and as needs increase for these linear corridors, more multi-municipal partnerships will emerge.
Why should municipalities cooperate? Unification is best for many reasons. It’s logical. It’s economical. And it makes it much easier for the public to recognize its source for recreation opportunities and information. It’s also easier to obtain funding and address the community’s needs, as one group. None of us is as strong as all of us.
Once everyone is on board to forge ahead with cooperation, it’s time to build public support for the concept of regional recreation. The goal is to get an intergovernmental agreement signed by municipalities and the school district, with tax support shared among them.
If the region has not had publicly-funded recreation services before, spend considerable time communicating the value of recreation services to elected officials and the public. Get copies of the DCNR publication Community Recreation and Parks and distribute them to local leaders. When people understand what regional recreation is and what it will mean to them, you gain supporters. Residents respond most to the fact that tax funds are spent economically and services are provided efficiently.
Every area of Pennsylvania is different - surprisingly different. What worked a few miles away in the same county may not work in your community. Intergovernmental cooperation efforts are strengthened by establishing and maintaining a spirit of cooperation. A positive, supportive attitude toward cooperation makes area officials more willing to try a program and give it a chance to work.
New intergovernmental concepts are approached cautiously, especially in regions where the municipalities have traditionally not cooperated. People are generally comfortable with the status quo and can be resistant to changes. Go at a pace that allows everyone to feel comfortable. Cover all of the bases when analyzing a cooperative program. If questions are left unanswered or information is incomplete, municipal officials are inclined to say “no.” Other keys to building community support for cooperation are to:
Find a “Cheerleader” - Involve a visible community leader who is totally committed to the idea of regional recreation. This person should be a well-liked and trusted individual with the time to devote to advocate for regional recreation. He or she should be the spokesperson for the cause. It’s no secret that most people don’t like change. A leader who can articulate the positive can make a difference in how people feel about intergovernmental cooperation.
Learn From Similar Attempts - If a cooperative effort hasn’t worked in the past, sometimes municipalities won’t try again. The refrains “It’ll never work” and “Remember what happened when we tried to” can keep cooperation from occurring. Instead of giving up, use the failure experience to learn how cooperation could work. The next effort could be more successful.
Recognize Historical Animosities - Something may have happened between the municipalities or school district a long time ago that created hard feelings among municipal officials. Unfortunately, current efforts to cooperate can be derailed by past problems if the animosity still exists. Knowing about problems can help you be sensitive towards resistance.
Communicate Effectively - Building support for regional recreation hinges on communication. If the decision makers of the municipalities, school district and community organizations aren’t kept fully informed, decisions about regional cooperation are made based on assumptions and perceptions rather than facts. The best way to keep them informed is to get them at the table during discussions. Otherwise, a great amount of effort can be wasted. Regular reports to elected officials from study committee representatives are important but shouldn’t be the only communication method. The representative’s personal observations and support can be crucial to a cooperative program’s success, but incomplete or distorted information can also be reported. Newsletters, well-documented budgets and meeting minutes are other good ways to communicate. The principle of cooperative programs is viewed by the press as a good government issue. Newspapers will usually give positive coverage to cooperative efforts unless there is an effort to maintain secrecy, which is an easy way to get negative coverage. Look for opportunities to promote regional recreation in letters to the editor and interviews. Meet with newspaper editors and ask for support in the form of an editorial.
Brief Newly Elected Officials- Often, cooperative efforts are started and everyone is up to speed, then an elected official or two leaves office. Newly elected officials haven’t been a part of the process. They’ll have questions that need answers and ideas that need consideration. It’s important for them to become fully informed.
Getting a number of municipalities and a school district to create a regional recreation agency is a daunting task. You’ll hear all kinds of reasons why it won’t work:
Negative talk isn’t insurmountable if there’s a desire and willingness among the municipalities to work together. Providing better services for a taxpayer’s dollar is always desirable.
It is important to recognize how the municipalities contribute to the region’s recreation opportunities. One municipality may be providing the outdoor swimming pool while another municipality is building new athletic fields in its park. Realistically, everyone will use these facilities regardless of where they live.
Your strongest case for intergovernmental cooperation will be based on the consequences of not acting rather than on the benefits that regional recreation will provide.
Identify that you have a problem and that some kind of change is warranted. This can come out of a peer study or a comprehensive planning process. What is the recreation and parks reality for your residents now? It may be that:
Use the recreation and parks reality to make a strong case against the status quo. If those who are opposed to regional recreation can make a case to keep things the same, they will do it and attack efforts to change things as a waste of the public’s money. Linking a cooperative effort as a way to improve and expand services will help to rally the community to support multi-municipal cooperation.
When gauging the impact of any opposition, consider its intensity as well as its resources. One articulate citizen, committed to doing whatever it takes to stop a cooperative effort, can be more formidable than a large organization whose constituents may have other concerns.
Determine who will be affected by a new regional recreation agency and in what way. Don’t overlook those who might mistakenly think they will be harmed. Youth sports providers often feel threatened by a new regional recreation agency. Build your credibility by getting to them with an explanation before they take a stand in opposition.
One practice that helps is to raise anticipated objections yourself. What this does is assure potential adversaries that nothing is being hidden. This is a solid way to build trust quickly. What’s even better is that this type of approach has a bonus factor. By raising the issue yourself, it opens up the opportunity to overcome the objections to it. A thorny issue can be put to rest before the other side can mount an attack on it.
Don’t waste time and energy trying to capture everyone’s support. If a strong case has been made against the status quo and the decision process has been fair and open, regional recreation stands a good chance of prevailing. Denial of due process triggers the most intense opposition. If the process fails the fairness test, regional recreation is dead.
Finally, remember that the people who are best prepared to deal with the politics of implementation are elected officials. Even when they have reasons not to sign on publicly in support of regional recreation, they can explain how regional recreation will be seen by various special interests, anticipate opposition that might have been missed and identify supporters that hadn’t been thought about.
Building trust is a process that develops over time as people get to know one another. These practices can speed up the trust-building process and build rapport toward creating a regional recreation agency:
Using these action strategies will position regional recreation in people’s minds as being in the best interest of the community. The goal is to convince communities that regionalizing is the most cost-effective approach to provide recreation services for residents.
Answering these questions openly and honestly will help to mobilize community support:
Once municipalities have decided to join together to provide recreation services, the nitty gritty details can be worked out. To form a regional recreation agency, an intergovernmental agreement of cooperation is developed among the municipalities, school district and other partners. Pennsylvania’s Intergovernmental Cooperation Law allows partners to create this agreement, which becomes a legal contract. It specifies the regional agency’s purpose, responsibilities, funding and board membership structure. To be officially adopted, the agreement must be passed by municipal ordinance and school district resolution.
The agreement of cooperation clearly details the in-kind services, which the funding partners provide to a regional recreation agency. It addresses concerns such as insurance coverage, facility use and office location. Generally, use of municipal and school district facilities is at no cost to the recreation agency. A big part of the agreement of cooperation is determining the formula to finance the operation of the regional recreation agency.
Working out the details of an intergovernmental agreement takes time and a positive attitude on everyone’s part. It’s difficult to get municipal and school district partners to agree on all of the issues. It can be a painstaking process that requires patience and persistence. The focus of the new agency’s work needs to be decided upon. Will the new regional agency offer recreation programs? Will it operate facilities such as a swimming pool or a park complex? Will it maintain park areas? The agency’s name needs to reflect its regional nature as well.
Local government programs require tax money to deliver services to citizens. When municipal programs are combined into joint programs, money is saved over the cost of undertaking separate, duplicate efforts; but sufficient funds must still be allocated to operate the more efficient joint program.
There is a broad range of options for funding regional recreation agencies. Some intergovernmental programs have no income source other than municipal taxes. Other joint recreation agencies can produce income through user fees, but the revenue generated cannot cover all costs. Recreation agencies can charge for pool admissions and league basketball play, but overpricing the fees will force out the very citizens a public recreation program is established to serve. The revenue for the new regional agency should be estimated conservatively.
Many municipalities will need to allocate new funds for regional agency operations. They may never have funded recreation services before. This can be because residents utilize the services of neighboring municipalities or there was no demand for services in the past.
A cooperative program should be a win/win rather than a win/lose situation. Each municipality should save money by cooperating or at the very least break even as compared to the cost of providing the service by themselves. If the municipalities focus first on the cost savings of cooperating, then the fair allocation of costs can be worked out. Sometimes, school districts give cash contributions as well.
The operating budget needs to be developed in conjunction with setting the municipal partners’ cost share for a new regional recreation agency. Deciding what will be provided in-kind by the partners is an important part of putting the budget together. Regional agencies are often located in municipal offices at no cost.
If that is not possible, office rental needs to be factored into the budget. Most regional agencies purchase their own liability insurance coverage. When more is provided in-kind to the new agency, the funding allocated by the municipalities can be used to develop services for the community.
What will the responsibilities of the agency’s director be? What level of experience should the director have? Answering these questions will help to determine the salary needed to attract qualified candidates. History has proven that if the director is experienced, the growing pains for a new agency are lessened. Hiring an experienced professional will mean paying a higher salary, but the payoff in results will far outweigh the extra money spent. Benefits will also have to be factored in. For the new agency to be successful, clerical office help is almost a necessity.
When a program is to be jointly funded, the municipalities must decide which of the following choices is the fairest.
Equal Shares - A regional recreation agency can be established where each municipality pays an equal share. This formula can work when the participating municipalities are about the same size and benefit fairly equally from the joint program. The agency’s budget is determined and split among the partners.
Population - Most often, each municipality’s cost share for a regional recreation agency is based upon population. The municipality’s share is equal to its percentage of the total population of the participating municipalities. If citizens benefit evenly by the program, they should all share in the cost through their taxes. The U.S. Census is often used for population figures, but in areas where populations are changing it can be very out of date in a few years. The census conducted by the schools may be a better way to establish the basis for municipal cost shares. If a large college campus is located in one of the municipalities, the participating municipalities must decide whether or not to include the number of students living on campus in the region’s population since many services for the students are provided by the college rather than the municipality. The U.S. Census counts students living on campus as residents of the municipality where the campus is located, not as residents of their hometown. A school district census may not count on-campus students as residents. Large populations in prisons or other institutions have the same distorting effect on population formulas.
Assessed Valuation - The value placed on all real estate in a municipality is called the total assessed valuation. When forming an intergovernmental agency, each municipality’s percentage of the total assessed valuation for all participating municipalities can be their percentage of the joint program costs. Total assessed valuation is frequently used as the basis for allocating shares of joint programs because it’s a measure of each municipality’s tax base or its ability to pay. More developed municipalities will have larger funding shares than small rural ones.
Each municipality’s cost to provide regional services must be decided before the final budget and tax rates for the next year are set by the municipalities. Regional agencies should prepare a proposed budget with explanations of revenues and expenditures by the end of August each year and forward it to each municipality for feedback. This allows enough time to incorporate costs for the agency into the participating municipalities’ budgets. Once these costs have been set, municipalities must keep their commitments.
Most often, the numbers of regional agency board members correlate to the municipality’s percentage of the region’s total population. So if municipality “A” holds 50 percent of the region’s residents, it would be represented on the board by one-half of the total membership. In some cases, partners believe that municipalities should be equally represented on the board, regardless of population numbers. When school districts are involved, they are normally represented by a set number of people.
The regional agency board is a governing body, not an advisory one. Having direct representation from municipal and school board elected officials on the regional recreation agency board strengthens accountability and communication. Board members should also have a strong interest in and/or knowledge of recreation and parks.
To allow time for the new regional agency to organize and develop successful programs and services, an intergovernmental agreement is normally signed for an initial term that is longer than one year. This commits the partners to financing the agency for this length of time. Often agreements are signed for an initial term of five years, after which they revert to automatic renewal each year.
How much notice does a partner need to give its fellow partners and the regional agency if it wants out of the intergovernmental agreement? To give the regional agency a fair amount of time to figure out how to replace the contribution amount of a withdrawing partner, many agreements include a one-year written notice before the end of the calendar year. This allows the regional agency at least one year to plan for the budget impact.
Drafting an intergovernmental cooperation agreement is a relatively straightforward task, but municipalities often find it takes much longer than anticipated to get from the initial idea of the agreement to properly enacted ordinances. The basic steps are to:
There are always issues that require more discussion among the partners to an intergovernmental agreement. Finding alternatives that are acceptable to everyone can be difficult. Some of the potential stumbling blocks are:
Cash Contribution Amount and Annual Increases - The initial lump-sum dollar amount to start up the new regional agency must be determined. This is done based on the projected budget. There’s always apprehension about signing an intergovernmental agreement as far as being locked into funding the regional agency. Some controls need to be put in place. Normally a cap is placed on the percentage that the amount can increase over the previous year’s cash contribution. This usually ranges from three to five percent.
Lack of Representation at Study Committee Meetings - When one or more of the potential regional partners does not regularly attend study committee meetings, it slows the process considerably. If a municipality or school district is not present, they lose the opportunity to be actively involved in decision-making. Lack of representation at meetings can indicate a lack of interest in being a part of a new regional agency.
Changing Leadership - When elected officials who have been part of drafting an intergovernmental agreement leave office, it creates concern. It’s necessary to get new elected officials educated about the process, and hopefully, supportive of the regional effort. Candidates for election should be questioned about their views on regional recreation.
Expansion - Sometimes, a municipality or two will not want to take part in the study process. Often, these municipalities are within the boundaries of the same school district as the other potential partners. To allow for future expansion of the regional agency, a clause can be added to the intergovernmental agreement to allow municipalities to join the regional agency in future years with the majority approval of the existing partners.
Existing Lease Agreements - Sometimes park areas and recreation facilities are leased by the municipalities to outside parties. The best solution is to leave those existing agreements in place and make it clear that the new regional agency will honor the terms of the lease. After it is up and functioning, the new agency can evaluate any leases that are in place.
Ownership of Existing Buildings and Facilities - Buildings and facilities can become issues if it is proposed that the new agency take over ownership. This scares partners because of the costs associated with utilities, maintenance and capital improvements. It is more common for a new regional agency to take over operation of existing facilities, with the partner retaining ownership. Normally, municipal partners continue to be responsible for capital improvements to property that they own.
Autonomy of Existing Programs - Local youth sports associations are often afraid that a new regional recreation agency will “take over” their programs. The volunteer groups are also concerned about the new agency controlling use of the park areas and recreation facilities they currently use. Add language to the intergovernmental agreement to allay these fears. Many times, municipalities have advisory park boards and committees in place. Since municipalities usually retain ownership of park areas and recreation facilities, keeping these volunteer boards may make sense.
Saving Surplus Funds - If a regional recreation agency has a surplus of funds at the end of the year, it should keep them. If the excess funds stay in the agency’s accounts a fund balance or capital fund can be built up. If municipalities require that surplus funds be returned, the regional agency may spend the extra funds simply to avoid losing them.
Cash Flow - A regional recreation agency needs money to cover its expenses, so payment of municipal shares must begin in early January. A payment schedule avoids the need for the cooperative program to borrow funds to pay its bills. Most agencies operate with partner payments due on a quarterly basis.
Audits - An annual audit of the regional recreation agency’s accounts should be completed to assure all participating municipalities and the public that the accounts are in order. Include the cost of this audit as part of the agency’s budget.
In-Kind Contributions - The most common in-kind contribution of partners is the use of buildings and grounds for recreation programs. There are many other possibilities for in-kind services, such as agency office space, payroll services and use of office equipment. In-kind services help to reduce costs for a regional agency, which corresponds to reduced costs for agreement partners.
Dependence on Grants - Grants from the state and federal governments are sometimes available for cooperative programs. DCNR grant programs even have a priority ranking for regional projects. A Circuit Rider grant can help to start a regional recreation agency by providing funds for the salary of a recreation and parks director. But it is a mistake to start a program simply because the grant funding is there. Once the seed funding is gone, the regional recreation agency must have adequate funding to stand on its own. The best way for municipalities to insure that is to allocate enough money to the new agency from the start to cover the cost of the director’s salary and benefits.
Solicitor Review - Legal review by municipal and school district solicitors can take a lot of time. Each solicitor completely overhauls the intergovernmental agreement to make sure the interests of their partner are intact.
After the intergovernmental agreement is adopted, the real work begins. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to the start-up of a new regional recreation agency. There are, however, key areas to address.
Once the Peer study is completed and the intergovernmental agreement has been signed, DCNR will consider an application for a Circuit Rider grant to hire a recreation and parks director. Circuit Rider grants fund 100 percent of the director’s salary for the first year of employment. The amount reduces by 25 percent each year for four years. The cost of benefits must be provided by the regional agency. When the grant ends, the regional agency must fully cover the salary and benefits of the director.
Spend time during the first year exploring other funding sources. Use the agency’s municipal funding as a foundation to build upon. Additional ways to generate revenue include expanding recreation programming, soliciting funds, establishing friends groups or support foundations, increasing volunteerism, and developing adopt-a-park and gift catalog programs.
Where will the office be? How will employees be paid? What can be provided as an in-kind service by the partners? Here are some of the items that must be addressed for the new agency:
General decisions may have already been made for many of these items, but most will need to be studied in more depth. For instance, the office location may be temporary or the director’s benefits may be provided by a partner until a better arrangement is secured.
To effectively serve the region’s recreation needs, a full-time recreation and parks director should be hired. Board members play an important role, but as volunteers, their role is limited. At a minimum, the director position qualifications should include a four-year college degree in community recreation and parks and five years of responsible experience in public recreation.
The DCNR publication Hiring Municipal Recreation and Park Personnel provides a step-by-step approach to finding and hiring the best qualified recreation and parks professionals.
To attract the caliber of candidates with the experience and know-how to develop a new community recreation service, offer a competitive salary. The success of a new regional recreation agency depends on hiring an experienced, professional leader. Advertise the position throughout Pennsylvania and other Mid-Atlantic states. DCNR and the Pennsylvania Recreation and Park Society (PRPS) can assist with advertising.
Regional recreation agencies are governed by policy-making boards. These are independent boards with final decision-making responsibilities and full power over the services created by the intergovernmental agreement. The municipal elected officials control the appointment and removal of regional recreation agency board members and the level of tax support of the policy board’s budget.
Most likely the regional agency board will be a new one. It will include representatives from the participating municipalities and often the school district. Members may not know each other or have worked together before. The role of chair is not always given to the most capable person; it often goes to the member who is willing to do it. He or she may never have run meetings before. Members may be uncomfortable with their role, and as a result, not speak up.
It will take a number of meetings to get organized. The first step will be to develop by-laws for the governing board’s operation. DCNR can provide training assistance for new boards on roles and responsibilities. DCNR’s Recreation and Parks Board Handbook provides answers and advice to strengthen volunteer boards. In addition, a Peer mentor for the new director and board is an eligible cost under the DCNR Circuit Rider program.
Cooperation is not a perfectly smooth path. Getting on the same path requires a common vision and agreement on a plan of action. Develop a written mission statement that is focused on the recreation agency’s purpose. The mission statement identifies the agency’s scope of responsibility and provides it with a sense of overall direction and priorities. Next, develop goals that address what the recreation agency wants to achieve. Once goals are in place, set immediate priorities and develop a work plan for the first three months.
How do you know what recreation and parks services and facilities residents want? Undertaking a comprehensive recreation, park and open apace plan is the most effective way to find out. This long-term plan focuses your work and provides structure and direction, laying out what needs to be done by when. Action strategies break down the implementation of the plan into realistic efforts. DCNR provides grant funds to assist with financing this plan.
Many recent intergovernmental agreements include a section that gives the new agency the responsibility to complete a regional comprehensive recreation, park and open space plan. The 2004 agreement forming the Spring Grove Regional Parks and Recreation Commission (York County) is an example of this. The plan must be completed during the initial term of the intergovernmental agreement.
Review the history of creating your regional agency. Read minutes from study committee meetings that led to its formation. Talk with study committee members and municipal staff and elected officials and read any newspaper articles. If a peer project was conducted, review the study recommendations with the peer. Find out why municipalities agreed to participate as partners in the new regional agency.
Know the provisions of your intergovernmental agreement, particularly partner representation numbers, how vacancies are filled, the purpose and powers of the agency board, when the annual report is due, the budget approval process, the funding formula, insurance requirements and the withdrawal process.
Visit every recreation facility in the region. Inventory the indoor recreation space within your region, including school district gymnasiums, churches, fire halls and college facilities. Make sure the inventory of your public parks is current. Meet with key community leaders and visit every municipality on a regular basis. Talk to everyone!
Helping your community’s residents connect to quality recreational opportunities unites new partners. You are providing a tremendous service for your residents and improving the quality of life in your community. Focusing on why you are working together and the great things you are doing helps make cooperation work.
Continually showing municipalities how they benefit from the regional arrangement contributes to success. How are they saving money? This gets elected officials’ attention and encourages their support.
Consider all elected officials as the “bosses.” Provide monthly and annual reports to elected officials and municipal staff, detailing accomplishments and updating them on issues. Some elected officials get a 10-foot stack of written material a year. It’s a competitive world to get their attention. Make agency documents visually attractive, clear and to the point.
Provide opportunities for municipal officials to garner a sense of ownership of the regional agency by involving them in the decision making process or calling them for guidance. Above all, keep partners informed and praise them publicly for their support.
Personal visits are the best way to establish an effective working relationship with municipal officials. At least twice each year, the director and/or board chair should attend meetings of each of the partners to give them first-hand information about the agency. Meet with newly elected officials and new municipal staff early in their terms before they are swept up in their responsibilities.
Other ways to improve the success rate of a cooperative effort are: Staying Positive - Changing what you say impacts how others are influenced and persuaded by you. It knocks down barriers of resistance, and fosters better communication and more cooperation.
Promoting the Cooperative Effort – Take every opportunity to promote the cooperation among the municipalities and school district. Listing partners on all written materials such as agency letterhead, business cards and permits is a visible reminder to the public.
Producing Results - Start with an easy project or with traditional recreation programming. It’s important that whatever is attempted is successful. When taking over any previous operation that has been done before such as recreation programming, park maintenance or swimming pool operation, do not make too many changes the first year unless the board says “yes” or it has to do with financial efficiency. Establish trust and agency reputation first.
Forming Partnerships - Most new regional agencies operate on a shoestring budget and have limited facilities to conduct recreation programs. Forming partnerships is essential. Address territoriality issues up front. Use of local parks and schools can threaten existing users. Gain their support first before proposing to use “their” facility. If separate park boards exist in municipalities, involve those board members in the new regional agency’s activities.
Recognizing Past Problems between Municipalities - The memories of older residents can be surprising. Hard feelings may remain from the consolidation of small, local schools into regional school districts. Municipalities may have tried to cooperate unsuccessfully in the past. Elected officials may have run against each other for political office. Find out everything possible about what took place in the past, since it may impact current actions.
The 2002 DCNR survey of Pennsylvania’s regional recreation agencies revealed that the number one way for a new regional agency to be successful is by communicating effectively with the elected officials and municipal staff of partners. Establishing good working relationships with municipalities and school districts so that there is an on-going exchange of information between the municipal elected officials and the regional agency staff and board members is important.The second most often reason given for success is the support provided by the municipalities and school district, particularly the use of facilities and the funding provided by partners.Third on the list of ways regional agencies achieve success is by establishing quality recreation programs and services that residents consider essential. Other reasons given for regional success are:
The 2002 DCNR survey of Pennsylvania’s regional recreation agencies revealed interesting information from the agency staff perspective. Being a regional agency has its good points. At times, it can be difficult as well.
What existing agencies said can be “good” and “bad” about being regional are separated as “assets” and “issues” under five general categories: facilities, programs and services, cooperation and support, funding, and education and communication.
On December 2,1969, a group of municipalities joined together in a voluntary organization through the adoption of the Centre Region Council of Governments Articles of Agreement. A major purpose of the COG has been to facilitate cooperative efforts to provide community facilities and services. Among these services is maintenance and programming for the parks, pools, nature center, and the senior citizens' center in the Centre Region.
Centre Region Parks & Recreation was established to serve the needs of the recreational communities and is an agency of the Centre Region Council of Governments. The COG charged the Centre Region Parks and Recreation Board with the operational oversight of the recreational services. The agency works for the municipalities, not as partners but as an extension of each of the governmental entities, to provide various services at a lower cost than if the municipalities were to provide such services on their own.
Since the establishment of this agreement, five municipalities have cooperated on a regional basis to operate one agency to provide municipal park maintenance and recreation program services. The agreement established between the municipalities was a result of extensive and honest discussions between elected officials. COG partners are College, Ferguson, Harris and Patton Townships and State College Borough.
The costs of the regional recreational program are prorated annually according to a formula based upon population, earned income and real estate values of each municipality. In establishing a fair program, the communities realized a fair distribution of expenses would rely on the total amount of the costs, the distribution of those costs (shares) and the disposition of assets if the initiative were to fail. Traditionally, the municipal parks have been acquired and built by the host municipality; the annual costs to program, operate and maintain the parks are then shared by all five municipalities.
The regional approach has also proved valuable in addressing the shortage of public sport fields across the region given the land area required and the high cost of construction of such facilities.
Centre Region Parks & Recreation currently maintains 47 recreational sites, including 563 acres of municipal parkland, a regional skatepark, two outdoor swimming pools, and a regional senior center.
The regional approach has helped the municipalities obtain grant funding for acquisition, planning and development projects. In 2006, the 68-acre Oak Hall parkland was acquired from Penn State and an additional 75-acre tract, Whitehall Road parkland, was purchased in May 2008 - both with state grant assistance. In addition, the DCNR approved grants to assist with the development of a Master Site Plan for each site. In 2010, DCNR approved a grant application that would assist in the acquisition of an additional 25-acre parcel from Penn State University to expand the Whitehall Road Regional Parklands to the fully-planned, 100-acre size.
Lewisburg has many community recreation services and facilities, which make it a pleasant place to live. Over a decade ago, these facilities and services were being managed by several different organizations that were competing with each other for the community's financial and volunteer service contributions. Two agencies, the Eastern Union County Recreation Association (EUCRA) and Lewisburg Area Recreation Authority (LARA) provided most of the community recreation services in the Lewisburg area. Community leaders realized one agency was needed to take a “regional” perspective and capitalize on the existing services, coordinate the community recreation activities, and manage its facilities.
In 1996, representatives from EUCRA and LARA applied and were granted funding to conduct a peer-to-peer study, funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation & Natural Resources (DCNR) to determine the effectiveness of a regional venture. The findings of the study indicated that both agencies provided valuable services to the community; however the organizations would be more efficient if they merged and were collectively supported by area municipalities and the school district. In 1999, Lewisburg Borough and East Buffalo Township created a new LARA. Kelly Township joined in August 2000 but has since left the authority.
With the award of a DCNR Circuit Rider Grant in February 2000, LARA was able to hire a full-time professional recreation director to supervise agency resources and move toward developing a sustainable comprehensive recreation program to meet the needs of people of all ages in the community.
A paid professional director has resulted in more professional operations for existing services and an abundant amount of new services, primarily in the form of community education classes and sport leagues.
In 2004, LARA formed a partnership with Playworld Systems, Inc., a manufacturer of playground and recreational equipment based in Lewisburg. Playworld approached LARA to discuss renovating the 22-acre Lewisburg Area Recreation Park located on Saint Mary Street in Lewisburg. Playworld Systems was interested in forming a partnership with LARA in which they would donate approximately $800,000 worth of equipment and other important funds to help repair roofs and correct drainage problems at the park. In return, Playworld Systems requested that LARA secure other funding to complete the approximately $2.5 million renovation of the Lewisburg Area Recreation Park using Playworld Systems donation as match and then agree to maintain the park once it was completed.
In 2005, LARA applied to DCNR's Community Conservation Partnership Initiative for $500,000 and received this funding through the Keystone Recreation, Park & Conservation Fund Program in 2005 and 2006. Currently phases one and two have been completed, which included the active playground areas for ages 2 to 5 and 5 to 12, a climbing wall, skateboard/BMX facility, and the Life Trail. These phases were completed in approximately 18 months. The final phase entails developing a passive area of the park at the west end of the park. Phase III work entails stream bank restoration on Buffalo Run as well as addressing drainage issues, landscaping, parking lot development, and extension of the pedestrian trail and walkways. LARA recently received an additional $300,000 in DCNR Keystone Fund to complete this phase of development.
The Lewisburg Community Pool, with a weakening structural and mechanical facility, was upgraded in 2006 to a safe operational level. For winter programming, an outdoor ice skating rink was also renovated and reopened. In 2008 a gymnastic center was built which provides a cross selection of courses for all ages from tumbling for pre-school-aged children to self-defense training for adults.
Despite the initial success of its new recreation programs and facilities, LARA still struggled financially and found revenue generation very challenging in those first few years. The number of municipal partners participating in LARA was much less than what was originally proposed in the peer-to-peer study and DCNR's grant to help fund the director’s salary had declined after four years.
More than ten years later, LARA’s diverse set of public programs and quality recreational facilities, established under the leadership of paid staff and an active board, produce about 70% of the revenue required to successfully operate.
Lewisburg Borough and East Buffalo Township both contribute per the intergovernmental agreement signed in 1999. As of 2011, LARA’s yearly allocation from Lewisburg and East Buffalo Township makes up about 25 percent of its $620,000 operating budget. Bucknell University, located in Lewisburg Borough, donates $15,000 annually.
In addition, LARA holds an annual fundraising drive each year that raises about $7,000-8,000 from local residents. LARA now employs three full-time employees and numerous part-time and seasonal employees.
LARA Executive Director, Kevin Drewinski has learned that a weakened economy can often provide pros and cons for local recreation programs. On one hand, the authority may sell less seasonal passes for the community swimming pool; on the other hand, residents tend to recreate closer to home and LARA has seen an increase in total participants.
In spring 2011, LARA underwent an independent financial review to help the organization operate more sustainably. The audit found that renovation of the community swimming pool in 2006 and increased maintenance costs for the newly refurbished park were contributing factors to the authority’s debt level, rising to $197K this past year. The renovation costs for the swimming pool were higher than anticipated and the authority was not able to retrieve all of the pledged funding for the project. Meanwhile, maintenance costs for the new park have nearly doubled.
Lewisburg Borough and Buffalo Township have agreed to provide zero-interest loans to the authority to pay of its debt. It is also anticipated that LARA’s intergovernmental agreement will be revisited and discussed as the costs to operate LARA’s facilities have increased significantly since the agreement was first signed.
Shaun McLaughlin, Union County Planning Director, served as the auditor and his analysis found that “LARA has managed to leverage nearly $6.6 million from LARA investments of $302,409 in capital projects - a 2,087-percent return on investment”.
For those municipalities looking to establish a recreational program, Drewinski advises that “municipalities and recreation authorities be very realistic about budgeting for maintenance and administrative costs” since it is this work that ensures successful programs.
For additional multi-municipal recreation examples, see Cooperation in Action Stories included in DCNR’s Multi-Municipal Cooperation for Recreation & Parks.
Much of this material was excerpted and/or adapted from the publication “Multi-Municipal Cooperation for Recreation and Parks” developed by the Pennsylvania Parks & Recreation Society and Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources/Bureau of Conservation and Recreation. Additional material and case studies were researched and edited by Nicole Faraguna. The Pennsylvania Land Trust Association prepared this guidance with support from the William Penn Foundation and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Bureau of Recreation and Conservation, Community Conservation Partnerships Program.
Nothing contained in this or any other document available at ConservationTools.org is intended to be relied upon as legal advice. The authors disclaim any attorney-client relationship with anyone to whom this document is furnished.
Copyright © is held by the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association
Text may be excerpted and reproduced with acknowledgement of ConservationTools.org and the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association.