Indy Looks to Privatize Parks

With a backlog of $46 million in improvements and just a $3.4 million annual budget, the Indianapolis parks and recreation department needs a new strategy. Inside we detail their efforts to tap private organizations to help manage the parks system...

What Happened?

The Indianapolis Department of Parks and Recreation is calling on nonprofits and private companies to offer bids for a partnership to manage the services while reducing budgetary burdens and adding amenities to improve the system. With budgetary restrictions inhibiting the city from making necessary improvements and additions to the parks system, a privatization contract would create a new funding opportunity to benefit taxpayers.

The Goal

The parks system of Indianapolis is arguably a prime candidate for a privatization partnership. Its programs are in need of rebooting and the public demand calls for expansion of services. In 2012, the city invited bids for a public-private collaboration, and has recently relaunched the proposal.

The city's parks department has a backlog of $46 million in improvements with just $3.4 million available in the annual budget. With regard to new facilities and programs, the parks department would need $51 million to fulfill these demands as well. The current city budget has no wiggle room to support any new projects for the parks system.

In Indianapolis, the strategy of privatization is not a new idea. Golf courses, after-school programs, recreational programs and other services are already being successfully managed by private companies throughout the city. The privatization of the parks system would enable the city to fund improvements to the quality and utilization of space while avoiding increased risk to Indianapolis and taxpayers. There are several types of privatization agreements Indianapolis is open to implementing including:

  • Creating a new park service or program in collaboration with a private entity
  • Handing over an existing facility or program to a private contractor source
  • Allocating private oversight of parts of the park system, rather than the entire department

Many officials would prefer a private company to bid for a partnership that involves portions of the parks system rather than the entire 207-property department.

Private Parks

In a piece for the Journal of Park and Recreation Administration, John Crompton of Texas A&M University creates a framework for city officials to use when reviewing privatization proposals for parks departments to ensure the strategy offers financial benefits while improving services and enhancing the community. Crompton identifies four macro forces that drive privatization and create the right conditions for privatization, of parks in particular, to be successful when implemented responsibly. These forces include:

  • Shortage of tax revenues
  • Political agendas of both liberal and conservative officials
  • Acknowledgement of inefficiencies in the public service sector
  • Distinction made between public service department and the entity producing the resources for public use and benefit

According to Crompton, when tax funds fall short it is easy for political agendas on both sides of the spectrum can influence the decision to privatize parks systems. Conservative officials want to increase private sector activity in local government services delivery, while liberals argue the partnerships enable the public sector to better service residents. In addition, Crompton argues adding a competitive component to the public sector will provide incentive to boost quality to taxpayers. Also, keeping the face of public sector services and the entity providing it separate will open new doors to funding for a plethora of departments.

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Gov1 has kept pace with the trend of privatization of not only parks systems but other services such as tollways.

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