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Recreation Authorities: Intergovernmental Option for Recreation in Michigans New Economy

By Harry Burkholder

 

In past years, local governments have used a number of strategies to provide for and fund park and recreation services, including contracting with the private sector, applying for local, state, and federal grants, and mobilizing community volunteers. To obtain greater efficiencies, municipalities are working across jurisdictional boundaries to provide for and finance community parks and recreation. Parks and recreation facilities tend to serve people across large geographical areas and contribute to the community’s overall sense of place. Additionally, recreation infrastructure extends well beyond municipal boundaries, especially for trail systems that often traverse multiple jurisdictions.

On the other hand, local governments are reluctant to give up autonomy in the management and development of parks and recreation facilities. Some local leaders may feel special ownership of the parks in which governments have invested. Such feelings can make it difficult to discuss shared control or joint operation options. Either way, inter-jurisdictional cooperation requires work.

Legal Tools and Levels of Cooperation
State enabling legislation (see chart) allows local governments to work across jurisdictional boundaries to provide for park and recreation services. Two or more units can develop and adopt a joint recreation plan or establish a recreation authority, seek a millage, and oversee the development and operation of municipal recreation facilities. The unique provisions of various state statutes allow local governments to establish a cooperative arrangement that best fits the specific needs and desires of their community. Taking a non-legislative approach to cooperation, local jurisdictions can share equipment and services to provide for park maintenance and support recreational programs. Recreational authorities are the focus of this article.

Recreational Authorities Act: PA 321 of 2000

biking

The Recreational Authority Act allows two or more villages, cities, townships, or counties to establish a recreation authority for the acquisition, construction, operation, maintenance, or improvement of one or more of the following:

• public swimming pool
• public recreation center
• public auditorium
• public conference center
• public park (see definition of “public park”)
• public museum
• public historical farm

The Act also allows the Recreational Authority to acquire and hold real and personal property inside or outside the territory of the Authority through purchase, lease, land contract, installment contracts, bequest, and other means.

To establish a recreation authority, each of the participating municipalities must first prepare and adopt Articles of Incorporation—the formal document that is filed with the state.

The Recreational Authorities Act provides a number of ways in which the Authority can be funded, including grants, fees, and revenue as appropriated by the Michigan Legislature or participating municipalities. The recreation authority may also borrow money and issue bonds to finance the acquisition, construction, and improvement of recreation facilities.

The Recreational Authority may also levy a tax of up to 1-mill for no more than 20 years. The Authority may levy the tax only upon the approval of a majority of the electors in each participating municipality, voting during a statewide or primary election.

To date, citizens have supported millages for six Recreational Authorities established under Act 321. Due to the current economic and political environment in many Michigan communities, most citizens believe it can be very difficult for a local entity to get a new millage approved. However, recent election trends demonstrate voters in many Michigan communities are willing to support and pay for important parks and recreation facilities. That said, it can be especially difficult for a Recreational Authority under Act 321 to get a millage passed because it requires the approval of voters in each participating municipality.

In 2008, the Iron Ore Heritage Recreation Authority put forward a .20 millage proposal to improve the 48-mile Iron Ore Heritage Trail in the greater Marquette region. Unfortunately, the majority of voters in two of the ten participating jurisdictions disapproved, killing the millage. Despite overwhelming support in eight of the participating jurisdictions, the proposal was defeated in two of the least populated jurisdictions by a total of just 38 votes. In 2010, a reconstituted Iron Ore Heritage Recreation Authority was able to get a millage proposal adopted by each of the eight participating units of government. According to Carol Fulsher, the executive director of the Iron Ore Heritage Recreation Authority, the flexibility of the Recreational Authority Act “allowed us to recreate a multi-jurisdictional authority that was better equipped to secure millage funding for future trail developments. The Act allows other local jurisdictions to join us if their voters also approve the millage.”

chart
Recreation Authorities are just one of many intergovernmental arrangements for cooperation on parks and recreation services. The unique provisions of the various state statutes allow local governments to use what best fits the needs and desires of their communities.


Programming Limitations?
Act 321 of 2000 specifically allows local governments to collaborate in the provision of recreation facilities. Act 321 does not explicitly allow for the provision of recreational programming. However, a number of the current Recreational Authorities provide a wide range of recreational programs to their citizens. It appears Recreational Authorities are providing for recreational programming as part of facility “operation” as defined in the Act. We recommend consulting with a municipal attorney if there are any questions concerning Act 321 of 2000 and the provision of recreation programming.

Getting Started
Establishing a new inter-jurisdictional body capable of overseeing and financing a wide range of park and recreation services is not easy—it requires time, patience, and a strong commitment to work together. One question that often arises is, “Do we draft a plan and then create an inter-jurisdictional body?” or “Do we establish a body then draft a plan?” There is no right or wrong answer. However, completing a comprehensive community-wide planning process prior to establishing a formal inter-jurisdictional body provides local officials an opportunity to better define the mission of the collaborative and build trust. Local officials should review the following steps as they consider moving forward with joint planning activities.

Step One
Local officials from each municipality should meet to assess if they will be able to work together. During early discussions, local officials should consider previous collaborative experiences, staff requirements, available resources, and the potential cost of a comprehensive planning process and establish a basic understanding of the goals of the new inter-jurisdictional body.

Step Two
Once local officials have agreed they can work together, a steering committee should be appointed to oversee the development of a community-wide or directed recreation plan, evaluating options for collaboration, informing the community, and helping draft the inter-jurisdictional agreement.

Step Three
The steering committee should agree upon the rules of engagement and discuss the potential goals of the new inter-jurisdictional body. When ready, the steering committee should take steps to initiate a community-wide planning process, assess the recreational needs and assets of the community, collect public input, and formulate the recreational goals of the community. The results of the community planning process are formally stated in a recreation plan that establishes a frame-work under which the inter-jurisdictional body can provide for community-wide parks and recreation. The Michigan Recreation and Parks Association, private consulting firms, nonprofit organizations, and community foundations can assist municipalities with each of these steps.


Newaygo Community Recreation and Natural Resources Conservation Plan
In November 2004, the city of Newaygo and Brooks, Everett, and Garfield Townships adopted formal resolutions committing to the cooperative development of a joint recreation and natural resources conservation plan. Local leaders were concerned over the limited availability of recreation facilities throughout the Newaygo community. Previous planning efforts also revealed community-wide interest in new sports facilities (soccer and baseball), paved trails, and nature areas. In addition, local officials acknowledged the strong connection between natural resources, community identity, and quality of life. With a grant from the Partnerships for Change Program and the Fremont Area Community Foundation, the four municipalities agreed to develop the Newaygo Community Recreation and Natural Resources Conservation Plan.

The four jurisdictions determined that establishing a Recreation Authority would provide the most flexibility in which park updates, maintenance, improvements, development, negotiations, and programming could be administered and funded. Articles of Incorporation were adopted, thereby establishing the Newaygo Community Recreation Authority in May of 2006. Later that year, the Recreation Authority adopted the community-wide Recreation and Natural Resources Conservation Plan. The plan was submitted to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources for approval and certification, which made the authority eligible for state grant funding.

In June of 2007, Everett Township withdrew from the authority. Undaunted, the three remaining jurisdictions adopted revised Articles of Incorporation and pursued grant opportunities for park improvements and the development of additional non-motorized trails. As a result, the Authority has leveraged over $309,500 in additional grant funding to improve a number of facilities (e.g. tennis courts, swimming pond, soccer fields, and skate park) and the renovation of the lodge at the Winter Sports Park into a primary trail head.

Due to these positive developments, the Authority amended the plan to include: improved recreational facilities, greater access to nature-based recreation, and more effective programming for the citizens of the Newaygo community. In addition, neighboring Croton Township agreed to join the authority in 2011.

Definition of a “Public Park”
An area of land or water dedicated to one or more of the following uses:

1. Recreational Purposes – including, but not limited to: landscaped tracts, picnic grounds, playgrounds, athletic fields, camps, campgrounds, zoological and botanical gardens, living historical farms, boating, hunting, fishing and birding areas, swimming areas, and foot, bicycle and bridle paths.
2. Open or scenic space.
3. Environmental, conservation, nature or wildlife areas.

Conclusion
Community parks and recreation programs are extremely important public services, contributing to our quality of life as well as our attachment to a place. One of the most important and effective strategies for maintaining community parks and recreation services in this difficult economy is inter-jurisdictional cooperation. This gives local governments a wide variety of ways to pool their resources and share the benefits of community-wide park and recreation services.

Harry Burkholder, AICP, is a community planner for the Land Information Access Association. You may reach him at 231-929-3696 or burkholder@liaa.org

 

 

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