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Community Center Reinvention – Can We Save Money and Serve the Community?

The Parks Department took a major hit in the 2011 budget and lost dozens of employees – but it could have been worse.  The Mayor’s proposed budget would have converted three community spaces to offices and cut drop in hours by up to 80% at five community centers proposed for ‘limited use’, with no plans for future restoration of services.  The Council restored funds for an additional 15 hours of drop in time at the Green Lake, Laurelhurst, and Queen Anne Community Centers, and also turned down two proposed conversions of community rooms to office space.

But we need a long range plan to sustain community centers in the face of significant challenges in the Seattle budget over at least the next three or four years that make it unlikely that we can fully restore these programs at the level at which they have operated in the past.

Laurelhurst Community Center

Recognizing this, the Council refused to accept the premise that we must resign ourselves to losing these important services.  Instead we launched a program to work with Seattle Parks Department, the public, our labor unions, and interested organizations to develop new options for operating our community centers.  The goal was to reinvent center operations to save money, without simply cutting services.  In the best case, reinvention techniques would create management and administrative efficiencies that would actually deliver better services at a lower cost.  The challenge is to reduce costs by the estimated $1.5 to $2.5 million that may be required to have a budget that the City’s resources can sustain over time.

After six months of work, a set of options has now been narrowed down to a discrete number of choices, which have been presented to the community for feedback.  You can get detailed information about the options and fill out an online survey at:  http://seattle.gov/parks/centers/operations.htm

The nine choices include four complete reorganizations, and five other options that could be mixed and matched with the basic four.  Here are the four core choices:

Option 1 reduces management by consolidating the 25 centers into 7 geographic groups, saving $667,000.  The option contemplates restoring 15 to 25 hours to the 5 centers that lost hours in the budget process at a cost of $448,000, and balancing that by having the Associated Recreation Council (ARC, which operates programs at community centers) add $446,000 to the payments it makes to Seattle parks.  This is a true reinvention scenario, saving funds while increasing services, but it does not save enough to ensure the future of community centers.

Option 2 assumes the geographic management system, but places community centers into tiers depending on their facilities, use patterns, and demographics.  Tier 1 would be open 50 or more hours/week, Tier 2a 30 to 45 hours/week, and Tier 2b 15 to 25 hours per week.  This would save $1,230,000 annually.  This could also be a realistic reinvention scenario, if the services the public most desires and uses are able to be delivered in a more efficient manner, but design will be tricky.

Option 3 assumes going to a tiered system and closing 3 centers that have either geographic duplication or low usage.  This would save $1,775,000.  The closed centers (and possibly some existing centers) would be offered to other organizations to operate, as the City currently does with Madrona Dance, Pratt Fine Arts, and Seward Park Clay Studio (or as Phinney Neighborhood Center does with no City support).  Again, this could be a reinvention scenario if the design could be worked out, but the fewer centers/hours there are to work with, the more challenging the design becomes.

Option 4 closes 7 to 10 community centers, saving $1.458, 000 to $2,714,000.  While this scenario suggests offering closed centers to other organizations, it is questionable whether there is the capacity to take on this many sites.  This is a fairly direct budget cutting scenario.

These first four options are the major choices.  I think the right answer probably involves looking carefully at Options 2 and 3.  To me, Option 1 is attractive but may not be affordable, and Option 4 is not creative and really damages our community programs.

The remaining options could be combined with any of those four, and are basically ways to reduce costs or increase revenues. 

Option 5 simply raises the administrative fee for the ARC from 3.25% of revenues to 5%, generating $126,000 in additional revenues.  Option 6 raises fees for non-residents by 10%, generating a possible $126,000, although there are some administrative challenges.  Option 7 involves using more volunteers to replace staffing for some community centers; savings are uncertain, but likely to be modest.  Option 8 would recruit outside organizations to provide programs or services using community center facilities during dark hours; while this may provide more services to the public, it is unlikely to generate significant additional revenue.  And Option 9 involves offering outside organizations the opportunity to operate community centers (compatible with Options 3 and 4, which close community centers), which would save $400,000 per center contracted out ($100,000 if the center is already limited use).

These options were distilled from the suggestions and discussions that have been going on for the last few months with interested parties and the public.  The Mayor may recommend one or more options as part of his budget submittal in September, and Council will likely have to make some choices about them during our budget deliberations in October and November.  Now is the time to weigh in if you have opinions! Follow the link above to take the survey or write Councilmember Bagshaw, Chair of the Parks and Seattle Center Committee, at sally.bagshaw@seattle.gov

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