Elk Grove Park District fights shrinking tax base by using technology

Community in crisis: Elk Grove Park District fights shrinking tax base by using technology

Dixon Tam

What happens when the largest airport in the country needs to get even bigger? That’s the problem facing Elk Grove Park District in Chicago, Ill. They face an annual funding shortfall of $200,000 or more if the proposed O’Hare International Airport expansion project is approved.

The $6.6-billion expansion project would take over valuable land in Elk Grove Village’s industrial park, which borders the airport to the west. Losing industrial land will hurt the village because it currently provides almost 75 percent of Elk Grove’s tax revenue. The hardest hit will be the local school and park districts, which rely heavily on property tax funding from the industrial park.

Half of the Elk Grove Park District’s revenues come from property taxes, while the rest is collected through user fees. How much the park district will be affected is yet to be determined because a lot depends on how much land is removed from the industrial park.

Opponents to the project are watching two roads–North York Road and Busse Road. North York Road is the first major street directly west of the present airport’s footprint, while Busse is the next major street after it. The farther the project goes west, the bigger the impact it will have on the industrial park.

“The worst-case scenario is several hundred thousand dollars a year out of our budget,” said Tom Cooke, president of the Elk Grove Park District’s board of commissioners. “If the expansion project only comes as far as North York Road like the current plan shows, it won’t have that much of an effect on us as far as loss of tax dollars. But if it goes further west towards Busse Road, then it will have a significant impact on our tax revenue.”

Located just outside of Chicago, the Elk Grove Industrial Park covers approximately 5.4 square miles and is the largest of its kind in North America. The park’s ideal location next to the world’s busiest airport is one of the reasons why it is home to almost 4,000 businesses and employs more than 90,000 people.

The airport’s modernization program includes:

* Reconfigured runways.

* Improved road access, including a ring road.

* New terminals.

* Additional parking.

* Closing two northwest-southeast runways.

“It will create 195,ooo new jobs … thousands of construction workers will be needed to build the airport. Then we’re looking at the thousands of jobs in the hospitality industry–at airport concessions, in hotels and restaurants, at McCormick Place and in all the other businesses that are devoted to serving tourists and business travelers,” Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley said in a press release. “And we can expect to see thousands of new jobs with the national and international companies that are attracted to Chicago because our airport enables them to move people and goods around the world quickly and efficiently.”

While the news from the city of Chicago mayor’s office is positive, the people in the suburb of Elk Grove do not share his enthusiasm. In fact, the village of 35,000 residents has established a multi-million-dollar legal fund to combat the airport expansion project, which is awaiting final approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.

“It’s a big fight,” Cooke said. “The village has set aside a lot of money to fight this battle with the city and to push for a solution. Our mayor is very committed.”

Last August, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed a bill authorizing the airport expansion. The legislation gives the City of Chicago more power to seize land.

According to the Suburban O’Hare Commission (SOC)–a consortium of municipal governments surrounding the airport–this will provide Chicago with “stunning new powers” and suggests Elk Grove Industrial Park could lose three times as many businesses as called for under project’s original plan.

The SOC takes offense that the city of Chicago is driving this project without regard for its neighbors. It claims expansion plans affect 67 businesses west of North York Road, which goes deep into the industrial park, and the city is targeting 238 businesses altogether.

While the legislation specifies that 76.6 acres is subject to condemnation, the SOC has learned through a freedom-of-information request that Chicago is also interested in an additional 62.2 acres of Elk Grove property.

“Just how much they want to carve up the community is hard to tell because, once again, Chicago doesn’t believe in being forthcoming,” said Elk Grove Village Mayor Craig Johnson in a press release.

“It’s worse than even we imagined. We have received no explanation from Chicago as to why they need the additional land. We can only conclude that what we have said all along is true: The expansion plan is flawed. Chicago will need more land to make it work, and if we’re right again, we would guess much more land.”

If the airport expansion is given the green light and the park district finds itself short several hundred thousands of tax dollars, this would not be the first time it has faced a financial shortfall of this magnitude. Two years ago, a large number of property tax appeals in the village left the park district with $500,000 less than what it had budgeted for. The park district was already two months into its fiscal year, so it dipped into its reserve fund and luckily it had enough to maintain operations.

The park district learned a valuable lesson and was determined that it would be ready if a similar scenario ever came up again. Cooke said the checklist today includes: no long-term debt waiting to be paid off; good cash reserves; improved organizational efficiencies; and, conservative budgets.

“Since then we’ve done some things to be more diligent,” Cooke said. “We’ve looked at ways that we can reduce expenses, improve efficiencies, improve processes, grow non-tax revenue sources, and expand marketing efforts.”

Technology

Elk Grove is not going to sit back and wait for the FAA’s decision on the O’Hare airport expansion project. It realizes that in order to survive any major financial shortfall that is coming its way, it has to rely on technology.

When executive director Barbara Heller was hired, one of the first things she did was replace the existing automated system. She didn’t feel it was meeting the needs of the organization.

It must he more efficient, improve customer service, otter better programming, grow its customer base, and be fiscally responsible. Parks and recreation organizations must be proactive and recognize changes must be made if they are to survive in a downturn economy, Heller said.

“We’ll have to rely more on fees and charges, and we’ll have to do a better job of retaining customers and improving our market penetration rate,” Heller said. “That all adds up to having a good software system that gives us the information we need to make good decisions.

Heller uses Class Software’s reporting capabilities to generate the data she needs to spot trends and inefficiencies, but also to help manage program registration, facility booking, point of sale, memberships, reporting, and to provide Internet and telephone registration. If it wasn’t for technology, Heller said parks and recreation professionals would have to rely on gut feelings when it came to planning. “We’d probably use our intuition to make a lot of decisions–sometimes it’s okay but many times you get in trouble with that,” she said.

Instead, they rely on genuine data, not guessing, to make their decisions. “The data will show what program areas we need to possibly get rid of because they’re not performing that well, or where there are opportunities for improvement, and what are the occupancy rates of our facility rentals, and if we can do a better job there.”

Heller knows the value of technology from her days with the parks and recreation department in Arlington, Texas. She said it’s important to be an innovator.

“In Texas, we went from manual to automated. It was really a big deal psychologically. The employees had a tremendous boost because it made them feel so much more part of a professional organization. Customers liked it because they felt comfortable. All the other transactions that they were doing with their other retail goods made them accustomed to it. I think it elevated the credibility of the organization in their minds.”

Elk Grove Park District registrar Suzette Schwartz can attest to the advantages of a good automated software system. She said since Class was implemented in 2000, the park district saves money by operating with a smaller staff.

“We are down in staffing numbers from a year and a half ago,” she said. “In the front counter area, we used to have 12 staff and now we’re down to nine. There’s just no need to have any more staff than what we have now because the software allows us to operate much more efficiently. In fact, we are processing more registrations today with fewer staff.”

Improving Efficiency

Prior to Class, the program registration and facility booking processes were cumbersome and left a long paper trail.

Facility booking was inflexible; you couldn’t see all the facilities at a glance, there were no color-coded screens to highlight information, and managing re-occurring contracts was tedious. An automated system has simplified the process for Elk Grove and allows users to book an array of rooms at one time if they choose to. “This allows us to free up staff to be more productive and increase rental opportunities and ultimately increase revenue,” said Schwartz.

Common errors, such as double-booking facilities, have also been reduced. As for program registration, an automated system processes transactions quicker. This makes the client happier because they don’t have to wait as long, and it also benefits the park district because its employees can serve more people.

Class’ Online Registration module, which Elk Grove implemented in winter 2002, has significantly alleviated the workload of the front-counter staff. The module allows residents to browse program offerings online in real time, meaning they can use their computer to see exactly how many spots are left in courses. They can then register and pay for the course immediately, 24 hours a day, seven clays a week.

An electronic receipt is issued and the information is passed on to the appropriate databases. There is no need to print out the data and re-enter it again, eliminating manual processes that some parks and recreation agencies still have to undergo when using a smaller online registration solution.

Elk Grove is also cognizant of the so-called digital divide, so it uses Class’ Telephone Registration module for those residents who don’t have computer access to register by touchtone phone.

Online and telephone registration has made a huge impact for the park district. Consider these statistics over the past year:

* For the first day on its winter/ spring registration session last December, an impressive 62 percent of registrations were conducted via the Internet or telephone.

* For its summer and fall registration sessions this year, 33 percent of registrations were done electronically. Schwartz attributes the lower–but still acceptable–percentage due to limited program offerings available online or by telephone compared to 2002.

* Since last winter, 41 percent of all registrations in Elk Grove have been done via Interact or telephone.

“Having a large number of customers register for courses via the Internet or by telephone is important because it lets our staff perform better customer service and allow them to do other things as well,” Schwartz said.

The success can also be measured by the positive feedback Elk Grove has received through brief online surveys customers are asked to fill out each time they register for a program online.

“We get quite a few of those back, and all the feedback that we’ve received from the very beginning indicate that our customers are being served in a convenient amount of time and that they are very pleased with what they are getting,” said Schwartz. “Here is an actual comment that was sent to us: ‘This is a great service, a definite time saver. I didn’t have to bring my three kids into the pavilion with me to register for classes. I loved it.’

“By having this type of feedback, we don’t have to assume, we have real numbers that show online registration is a success.”

Added Cooke: “There has been a big commitment on behalf of the park district to technology. Most people, especially the younger ones, are online and it’s very easy to register that way versus standing in a long line. “When my kids were young, we’d sit and be there for a couple of hours in line, filling out forms and everything else.

“Today, residents nave a comfort level going on the Internet and I think there are a lot more families who do. It’s a lot easier to go online and see what’s available and do it at your convenience. Everything that I’ve heard has been positive. It has improved efficiency, it can handle more people, more registrations with fewer staff; and it offers greater convenience to our constituents.

“Salaries make up 60 percent of our budget. Anytime you can either reduce or maintain your current staffing levels and be able to handle more registrations and more people efficiently, it will save you dollars.”

Scheduled Payments

Elk Grove offers preschool and before- and after-school programs. They run nine months out of the year and customers have to make a payment for the programs each month.

Prior to bringing in Class Software, the customer had to go into the park district office each month, re-register for the next month, and then pay for it. This was a very time-consuming procedure for both the customer and the course coordinators. Staff can now schedule payments; they create one activity and the software automatically schedules the payments.

The payment date can also be customized, and customers have the option of paying for the programs from home via the Internet, thus saving them a trip to the office.

Reports

Customized reports can provide you with a lot of information that you might not have previously known about your organization. Here’s a brief list of what reports can do for you:

* Show which programs have low registration figures.

* Break down demographics of your customers

* Show instructors how much revenue their programs are generating.

* Standardize class lists for instructors.

* Point out which programs are always full so you can create extra classes and generate more revenue.

* Highlight trends such as showing classes that are worthwhile but are ill the wrong time slot.

“Class’ reporting capabilities are very important to us because we use the data for registration summary reports,” Schwartz said. “Coordinators can quickly pull up a report and see how many people are registered in their class and how many people have withdrawn from their class.

This is advantageous because we can see who has withdrawn, and then we can call the customer and offer them another class or find out why they withdrew.

“We really like how we can customize reports to suit our individual needs. If we want to send out birthday cards to our customers, our registration reports have birth dates on them, allowing us to send out cards every month at the seniors’ center.”

Sending out a birthday card may not seem like much, but it’s the little things that add up to create good customer service.

Software Integration

Elk Grove used to be frustrated by the fact that none of its applications could exchange data despite being within the same system. This created redundancies and made it difficult for some customers to spend their money.

For example, program registration and facility booking were handled by the park district’s previous software system, yet the applications were not able to communicate with each other. Let’s say a customer paid $100 to book a facility for a birthday party and then changed their mind. The customer service representative would cancel the booking and place the money as a credit in the customer’s account.

But if the customer came in the next day and wanted to use the $100 to register for a program, the program registration application would not be able to see the credit.

“Instead, I’d have to give a refund first and then the customer could use that money to register for the program, or the customer could pay for the program first and then wait for a refund from their canceled facility booking,” Schwartz said. “Now with Class, all the systems are integrated, so that anytime a customer withdraws from a course or cancels a rental, the money sits in their general account. All transactions–from bookings to program registrations–sit in one account.

“By having the capability of leaving a credit on someone’s account, they’re more likely to spend the money with us because the money is already there. It doesn’t give the customer time to take their money and spend it elsewhere.”

Planning for the Future

Automating the front counter and offering online and telephone registration is just the start for Elk Grove. The park district currently has one kiosk for customers who prefer to go the self-service route. Heller sees this as another opportunity to reduce costs in the future.

“That kind of technology is going to help us five years down the road. If we’re spending $100,000 on labor costs to operate the front desk, then online registration and self-service kiosks will drive down the costs to staff a front desk.”

The key to keeping customers and adding new ones to the customer base is providing good service. In a competitive environment, good customer service will help keep your clients happy, which will in turn, pull your department through any financial difficulties.

“If you don’t provide good customer service, you’re not going to have customers,” said Heller. “Our vision statement is to exceed expectations by achieving customer-driven excellence, and we pay attention to what that means. It means reducing levels of dissatisfaction, it’s about building relationships, and it’s about paying attention to our customer retention and measuring satisfaction levels.”

Although a loss of tax revenue because of the airport expansion project could place a heavy burden on Elk Grove Village taxpayers, Heller feels that as long as the park district is prepared, they can survive.

“If you lose the battle, you have to make adjustments, and depending on what the loss of revenue is will dictate what type of adjustments we’ll have to make. It could be getting rid of certain programming that’s not profitable.”

Having survived a huge financial shortfall in the past, Heller is confident her organization can handle whatever occurs in the future.

“It keeps us on our toes and that’s a good thing. That’s another reason why it’s important to be innovative instead of keeping the status quo.”

Dixon Tam is the Public Relations Associate Class Software Solutions. Prior to working for Class, he spent more than a decade in the newspaper industry as a reporter and editor.

COPYRIGHT 2004 National Recreation and Park Association

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