Lafayette looks to the state Capitol for a model on how to run a more progressive parks and recreation department.
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 Lafayette Parks and Recreation Director Gerald Boudreaux says any reorganization of Lafayette’s parks and recreation system has to address the details of funding, staffing issues and risk management.
 Photo by Terri Fensel
City-Parish President Joey Durel doesn’t remember the genesis of the idea to possibly re-organize Lafayette’s Parks and Recreation Department — and to look to Baton Rouge’s successful independent parks and recreation organization, BREC, as a model. “I don’t know exactly when it first entered my mind,” he says. “But I can tell you I’ve heard of BREC, and people have talked to me about things like that since the day I got in office.”

Taking its name from a combination of the abbreviations BR for Baton Rouge and REC for recreation, BREC is widely regarded as one of the more progressive city parks and recreation agencies in the country. The National Recreation and Park Association has twice recognized BREC with its prestigious Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Park and Recreation Management. BREC is also one of only 27 agencies across the country to have earned national accreditation.

BREC is also unique in that it’s among the few parks and recreation commissions to operate independent of city and parish government. It has its own dedicated tax revenues, in addition to self-generated funds, and its own commission board that oversees a wide array of recreational programs and facilities. The BREC commission is comprised of nine members, six appointed by the Metro Council, as well as three ex-officio members — the mayor-president, a member of the school board and a member of the city-parish planning commission. In addition to its public parks, swimming pools and sports leagues, BREC also manages several camping facilities, seven public golf courses, the Baton Rouge Zoo, the Botanic Gardens, the Highland Observatory and Cohn Arboretum. It also provides the public with a skate park, an air gun range, an in-line skating track, an equestrian center, a BMX dirt track and two extensive mountain bike trails.

Bill Palmer, who has served as BREC’s superintendent since 2006, says his agency’s model has also proved successful outside Louisiana. “Across the United States,” he says, “you’re going to find that the most successful parks and recreation agencies, those that are doing the best job of achieving their mission in parks and recreation are the special recreation districts similar to BREC.”

Asked why, Palmer replies, “Because they have dedicated funding that is tied to their specific mission. That’s the main reason, and they’re able to maintain a highly professional park and recreation staff.”

Earlier this month, Durel used his annual State of the City-Parish address to publicly float the proposition of taking a closer look at the BREC model for the first time. “I am announcing an initiative to explore the possibility of removing Parks and Rec from total government control and placing it in the hands of the community,” Durel said. “There are models that we can copy that have been successful, like BREC in Baton Rouge. I would like to see funding and operations become something more like LEDA or our library system.”

Durel prefaced those remarks by noting how the city-parish general fund continues to subsidize the parks and recreation department. The city only has one property tax dedicated to funding parks and recreation — generating around $2 million a year. And while Lafayette Consolidated Government continues to administer programs and park upkeep across the parish, there is no parish-wide tax for parks and recreation.

“The real instigator now is that money is tight in government,” Durel says. “And there’s nothing out there right now to indicate that it’s going to get better. To me, we might as well start planning for the future and looking ahead and seeing if there’s a different way of doing things that can be beneficial to government and parks and recreation where it’s a win for everybody.”

He adds, “If we can’t come up with something, if it doesn’t work, then we just don’t do it.”

The annual budget for Lafayette’s Parks and Recreation Department is approximately $11 million. The department brings in roughly $5 million (45 percent of its overall budget) through self-generated fees and grants. A 1.86 mill city property tax generates another $2 million, while the rest is offset by a subsidy from the city-parish general fund.

By comparison, BREC, which operates in a parish roughly twice the size with many more facilities, has an overall annual budget of $35 million. BREC Superintendent Palmer says the agency generates about one quarter of that amount through public fees and grants for its programs. The remaining $26 million all comes from about a 14 mill property tax throughout the parish that is dedicated to BREC. Palmer says the community has been very supportive of the agency. Over the past 30, he says BREC tax measures have been on the ballot seven times, only one of which — a tax increase proposal in 1997 — failed.

We have very strong support from all parts of the community,” Palmer says. “It works because we fulfill our promises to the public. We do what we tell the public we are going to do. I think that people value what we do, and we make it a point to involve the community in our decision-making process.”

Lafayette Parks and Recreation Director Gerald Boudreaux is impressed with the BREC system but notes that its success has been built over a long period of time. “BREC was something that was set up almost 60 years ago,” he says. “They started at the ground level and built in growth and development as part of their model. Those people who had that type of foresight to plan are to be commended because that’s the way to go.”

“It’s there, and the people have supported it over and over again,” he continues, “so I think that it’s a positive example of how a community can get involved in public recreation and the growth and the development of programs, activities and facilities.”

Both Boudreaux and Durel point out that BREC may not be the right model for Lafayette. Durel says his plan is to appoint a committee to examine not only the way Baton Rouge runs its parks and recreation, but also to look at other progressive models across the country. Boudreaux says another system that is used involves setting up an independent agency to handle grants, fund raising and property donations while keeping the parks and recreation policy and staff under the auspices of local government.

Boudreaux says any new plan will have to fit into Lafayette’s own unique needs and interests and address the details of funding, staffing issues and risk management. “There’s a number of issues that all factor in,” he says. “The first step is to form a committee, and they would begin exploring options.”

Durel plans to begin meeting with other city officials in the coming weeks to jumpstart that process. He hopes to have some recommendations back and some type of plan in place by his next State of the City-Parish address in 2009. Any major reorganization of the department, he notes, would likely require approval from the voters — a measure he doesn’t expect to be on the ballot before summer 2009.

“All I did the other day was plant a seed,” he says. “We’ll see where it goes from here.”

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