GENERAL PARKS AND RECREATION DISTRICTS
The use of special districts to administer parks and recreation services originates from a successful experiment by New York City in XXXX. The city created a commission to depoliticize the provision of parks and recreation services, which led to the development of Central Park. Following this model of success, a number of states now have some form of park district that span a range of services, including open space protection, land conservation, environmental education, and leisure activities. Local governments increasingly offload parks and recreation responsibilities to special districts because they require large capital investments and they benefit from district boundaries drawn according to public use. The impact of tax limitations and pressure on general funds also encourages development of park districts. Flickinger and Murphy () provide insight from a park director in Illinois who believes special taxing status is essential because park ...view middle of the document...
Their bi-monthly publication has commissioned several studies by university researchers assessing the effectiveness of park districts in and around Illinois. While their results appear valid, the studies are not peer-reviewed and they lack the rigorous reporting of their methodologies. Nevertheless, IPRA publications and its authors are the only source of recent studies evaluating this important form of government.
Mulvaney et al. (2008) sampled households residing in Illinois park districts to gauge their satisfaction and opinion of their local parks. The results indicate that citizens have equally high rates of satisfaction for both park districts and departments in Illinois. The research also finds Illinois park districts suffer from the same criticism of districts in general; upwards of 48% knew nothing about the district’s effectiveness or the extent to which the district cooperates with other local governments. Despite limited knowledge on the operation of park districts, respondents overwhelmingly felt they were superior to park services delivered by “consolidated government” (Mulvaney et al. 2008 pp. XX). The positive perception of park districts may result from consistently good experience and a sincere belief that they are superior to general purpose government or it could suggest a negative perception of “consolidated government.” The authors do not attempt to explain the peculiarity in the data.
In a more methodologically sound research, Emanuelson (2008 Sept/Oct) presents findings from a survey of park agencies in seven Midwestern states to compare amenities and programs offered by park districts and park departments. The results find that overall, park and recreation departments have more facilities, fields, and pathways per acre than park districts. On the other hand, districts on average offer a greater number and diversity of recreational programs. A follow up unpublished paper by Emanuelson (2008 April) expands on the Illinois report to include ten Midwestern states with several measures of efficiency and effectiveness. The larger sample found park districts provide, on a per capita basis, fewer facilities, recreational programs, and fewer acres of parkland than the average parks and recreation department. These contradictory findings indicate state policy plays a significant role in the autonomy and effectiveness of special districts.