The Indianapolis Parks and Recreation Department has established a unique partnership with local churches for park maintenance. The partnerships have reconnected communities to their parks, provided an opportunity for churches to make money, saved the city in maintenance costs, and allowed the parks department to spend more money on capital equipment.
In 1995, the Indianapolis Parks Department (INDY Parks) initiated an entrepreneurial program to decentralize maintenance of small neighborhood parks through partnerships with local churches. Both churches and parks have traditionally played key roles in anchoring their communities, and it was felt that churches could be an asset in fostering a sense of neighborhood responsibility for the city’s deteriorating parks.
INDY Parks reached out to local churches when it realized that maintaining small neighborhood parks of five acres or smaller, especially “tot-lots,” was no longer economical for the department. This was primarily due to the investment the department had made in large maintenance equipment, most of which could not be used in small parks. Together, the department and the church ministries devised a three pronged strategy.
The first strategy was to create an “urban park ministry,” which would make ministers the local managers of park upkeep. The second stressed the opportunity the church would have to involve youth and the homeless in the program, two groups with whom the churches were already working. The third strategy was to allow churches to become more involved in decision-making over the future of their local parks, including programming and equipment needs. According to Joseph Wynns, Assistant Director of INDY Parks, the program “was not just a maintenance program, but a way to transfer power to the local people. The idea was to increase accountability and ownership over the parks, and couple that with resources.”
The city puts up $60,000 a year for the partnership program and sends out requests for bids to all the churches in the city outlining the scope of services required. Each contract is for general maintenance and grass mowing. The contract includes baseline standards for turf care, litter, surfaces, benches, and shelters. The city and the union review all applications to determine if the applicant can conduct the maintenance on par with the union’s maintenance contract with the city. The city maintains liability for the program, but insists the churches provide workmen’s compensation.
The city pays the churches individual grants based on the church’s scope of work, the size of the park, and the number of parks they service. Grants range from $500 to $5,000 per year and are administered on a monthly basis. The grants do not cover any new equipment costs or the salaries of existing church maintenance personnel.
Churches that maintain their own property were the ideal candidates for the program, since they have already made investments in equipment and maintenance personnel. Some parks had as many as six churches submitting bids.
The program has saved the city money on mowing equipment, fuel, gasoline, the hauling and disposal of clippings and trash, and union scale wages and benefits. Since the program is fairly new, exact cost saving figures are not available. However, according to Joseph Wynns, both smaller and larger parks are now in considerably better shape.
Youth outreach programs in local parks have increased. The churches often expect youths or others involved in church programs to put in time maintaining the parks. For example, the Shepherd Community Church runs a mission and expects each patron to bring in one bag of trash from the park in exchange for a meal. The Shepherd Church has also used the program as an entrepreneurial opportunity: they submitted and won a maintenance and mowing contract for many of the bank properties in their neighborhood. The church has generated enough revenue from these programs to start a summer day-camp in their park. Other churches may contract the work out to neighborhood people. Besides money, the churches are given substantial authority over the parks including program planning, site supervision and use of fee services (like pools) at no charge.
The success of the program and the savings incurred by the parks department has encouraged the city to make capital improvements in almost every park in the program (so far 23 of the city’s 80 local parks are involved). Many have new playground equipment, walks, and pavement as a direct result of the initiative. The local union, which voluntarily forfeited their contract to maintain some of the small parks, has supported the initiative and has been involved in shaping the contracts and reviewing the bids every year. Since the city has not reduced the size of its unionized maintenance force, there are more workers to look after the larger parks that have not been bid out to the churches.
The city maintains that the success of the program is due in part to the willingness of the parks department to give up control over the parks but maintain a close eye on them through a partnership. Wynns noted that the city carefully monitors the equipment used by the churches, and has been known to cancel contracts due to inappropriate or inadequate equipment. The city also makes sure that the churches understand that there is a baseline standard that has to be met for maintenance of the parks, and holds training sessions to demonstrate various problems and solutions in park maintenance (for example, the churches are alerted to the problem of bees in summertime garbage cans.) The city also stresses the importance of hiring and keeping one worker per task.
Joseph L.B. Wynns, Assistant Director, INDY Parks, 317-327-7050