Stable, local public funding is essential for a successful and equitable park system. It is the primary source for critical maintenance, operations and programming. Those responsibilities are consistently identified by park leaders as the most challenging to fund, but often not covered by state, federal or philanthropic sources. Meanwhile, equity challenges between cities remain. Even with parks, there are haves and have-nots. Stable, local public funding enables communities to address disparities and promote fair and equitable park resources.
General FundA city’s general fund pays for most capital and operating expenses. The revenue comes primarily from property taxes and elected officials allocate the funds to city functions through the annual budget process. Parks and recreation funding can, therefore, vary, influenced by local politics, a city’s economic fortunes and the engagement of citizens in the budget process. Parks and recreation departments are often the first to have their budgets slashed and the last to see them increased. Park advocates and nonprofits play an important role in ensuring consistent funding for parks year to year. Cities with strong nonprofits and organized advocates tend to have the most stable public funding for parks. For more information on making the case for parks and building a strong network of park advocates, see Other Resources below.Park Funding UseCapital/Land Acquisition, Operations/Maintenance, Programming
General Obligation BondsA general obligation bond (GO bond) allows local governments to borrow money. It is a municipal bond backed by the credit and taxing power of the issuing jurisdiction. General obligation bonds rely on the investor’s trust that a municipality will repay its debt through taxes on residents. The city can use the revenue to fund parks and repaying with tax revenue. General obligation bonds are approved by elected officials through the legislative process or by citizens by ballot measure, according to local and state laws.Park Funding UseCapital/Land Acquisition
Sales and Use TaxesSales and use taxes can be passed by legislatures or by popular vote. Some jurisdictions allocate a certain percentage of local or state sales taxes to parks, while others pass specific sales tax measures dedicated parks and Special Park Districts. With any new tax measures, additional legislation might be required to prevent tax revenue from simply replacing general fund dollars—a zero-sum game. General sales taxes apply to a broad base of goods. Substantial revenue, therefore, can be generated with a relatively low tax rate, keeping the per-household burden low. Sales taxes are regressive, however, and have a greater impact on low-earners, particularly when applied to essential goods, such as food and clothing. So called “sin taxes,” are a subset of sales taxes imposed on commodities or activities that are perceived to be unhealthy or have a negative societal effect±—cigarettes, gambling and alcohol for instance. Critics contend that these taxes also disproportionately affect low-income families.Park Funding UseCapital/Land Acquisition, Operations/Maintenance, Programming
Property TaxesMany jurisdictions opt to levy taxes on the value of personal property, to fund parks and recreation initiatives. State laws vary whether revenue from property tax levies can be used for operating costs or capital investments. Property tax levies can be passed through legislative initiative or tax referendum.Park Funding UseCapital/Land Acquisition, Operations/Maintenance, Programming