Guest Column: Park District Commissioners offer perspective

By Jack L. Armstrong, Douglas J. Brooks, Chuck Brown Ph. D., Nate Martin, Tyler Smith
Rockford Park District Board of Commissioners

As Commissioners of the Rockford Park District, we proudly serve the citizens of the Rockford area communities. As your elected officials, we thoroughly understand our governance roles and responsibilities. Over the past few days, there has been inordinate and unbalanced coverage about operational issues. It is our intent to present broader and balanced perspectives about the District’s operational, financial, and strategic successes.

Over the past few years, leadership with the Board, executive director, and all employees has resulted in many accomplishments that have enhanced the quality of life and economic vitality of this community. Many accomplishments have simply been unreported and under-recognized. We highlight only a few in this column, and feel it imperative to explicitly state that our accomplishments are benchmarked by industry accreditation, high performance, and meeting organizational standards. The data we present is not simply the perspective of a few people, but rather, the data we present is the result of careful analysis and thoughtful evaluation as we have attempted to engage in organizational practices that reflect continuous improvement. The primary sources of District accomplishments are published annually through the Annual Report/Citizen Financial Report.

Operational successes

• The District’s operational, tactical, and strategic procedures have been reviewed and affirmed through accreditation, evaluation methods, and awards of distinction. During the past 28 years, the Park District has received the Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting from the Government Finance Officers’ Association 27 times. The Rockford Park District (RPD) has earned the Illinois Association of Park Districts Distinguished Agency Award for accreditation in 2008 (and is valid through 2013). This award affirms that the general management, financial management, personnel management, and legal management are operating at superior levels.

• RPD was asked to support and operate the new Friday Night Flicks at Davis Park, and then was asked to support and operate the Harris Winter Wonderland at Davis Park. We make good things happen for our community, and are willing to partner and be responsive to our citizens, and this comes with a cost to make these good things happen. Somehow, we make it work, and the community benefits.

• A valuable corps of volunteers nurtured and cultivated by RPD staff provides additional help that does not cost the taxpayers wages for labor performed. During 2010, 3,181 volunteers contributed 30,759 hours of service, saving $276,531 in potential labor costs.

• To address the high unemployment and inability of many citizens to afford recreational services, the District shifted its focus to providing free and low-cost activities for families to access and enjoy. Examples include free concerts, playground programs, and family events.

Financial successes

• The RPD completed or initiated capital projects that totaled $33 million over the past four years. Projects include the Nicholas Conservatory, which is being paid for ENTIRELY by private donations and grants, as reported by the Rockford Register Star in an article dated 10/4/10 when the $600,000 additional cost was incurred due to the necessity of a vendor change to construct the greenhouse portion that was paid for by a donor, interest income, and a state grant. There were three major park developments in six different locations, expansions at three District museums, and road improvements at Sportscore Two. The District’s direct investment for all of these projects was $3 million; the remaining $30 million was leveraged with grants, private contributions, and in-kind donations, including land. This is an 11-to-1 leverage of tax dollars for new capital projects that enhances the quality of life in our community. What other entity gives taxpayers such a return on their tax investment?

• Two years ago, we invited seven professional financial experts to review and analyze our long-term financial outlook. This volunteer citizen committee gave the Board nine recommendations to consider for addressing future funding gaps. Their strategic direction resulted in $2.2 million in operational savings, which included expanding contracted services, renegotiating existing service contracts, reducing administrative overhead, and creating new revenue streams that netted the RPD $2.2million in new revenue. We consider these remarkable results.

• The RPD has a 101-year history of presenting and delivering a balanced budget. There is no deficit spending or borrowing money to pay our bills or to meet payroll. In fact, when the District experienced two years in a row of revenue projections not being met, and had a negative variance of -$2.5 million, a budget alignment plan was created to address the shortfall with further reductions totaling $689,113 immediately implemented. We did what we had to do to align our budget.

Strategic successes

• The Board develops priorities of service based on citizen input. We took a community-wide survey last summer, and the strategic planning and 2011 budget were direct results of citizen input, including improved maintenance at parks and facilities, additional free programs for citizens to access, and adequately funding fixed operational cost increases for health care, retirement, and safety.

• We conduct loss-control review audits of all program and facility operations to ensure the maximum safety of our citizens and staff. The RPD was reviewed in 2009 and scored 96.06%, the highest score in our 26-year history being self-insured through the Park District Risk Management Agency, elevating the RPD to Excellence Level A status. The rating is valid for two years, and we will be evaluated again in 2011.

• The District’s bond rating from Moody increased by two points in 2010, from A1 to Aa2. According to Moody’s, “The district’s financial operations are expected to remain stable due to prudent management, the recent implementation of financial flexibility, and the maintenance of healthy reserve levels.”

While there are many more successes and accomplishments that cannot be contained here due to space constraints, the Board of Commissioners unanimously and unequivocally desired to modestly reward the executive director for his outstanding leadership of the Rockford Park District. The Board reviews the executive director’s terms of employment every February, and the recommendation to consider a salary increase was brought to the commissioners by the citizen Compensation Advisory Committee, comprised of human resource professionals who recommended appropriately adjusting Mr. Dimke’s salary, and we were in complete agreement.

Your Rockford Park District Board of Commissioners: Jack L. Armstrong, Douglas J. Brooks, Chuck Brown Ph. D., Nate Martin, and Tyler Smith

Editor’s note: The Rockford Park District stands head and shoulders above all its neighboring public entities as the most responsive taxpayer servant to public needs and voices. The Rockford Park District contributes more to our area quality of life than any other public institution. The Rockford Park District is the best thing this town has going for it. The Rockford Park District has brought a national spotlight to Rockford through its fine programs and reputation, and Mr. Dimke has maintained and improved that legacy put in his charge by his predecessor, Webbs Norman.

Leadership must be rewarded to set a recongnizable standard and reinforcement of achievement, so the example is set for others to aspire to—I wish all the people who have been critical of the Rockford Park District had a quarter of their management skill sets and their organization culture of truly caring. If only these critics had the same level of immediate response to citizen concerns that the Rockford Park District consistently delivers; Dimke and company always find some way or many ways to say “Yes” to almost every request. That’s remarkable!

I am so glad the commissioners said “Yes” to Executive Director Tim Dimke—he deserves it! We must reward leadership excellence no matter what the challenges are at hand if we truly want consistent triumph over those challenges—especially in hard times!

I challenge anyone to match the strength, the commitment and the greatness of  the Rockford Park District employees, their programs, our commissioners and Dimke’s “can do” attitudes. Quit the jealous whining, and get to work! When you match up, you’ll know yourself the resistance in carrying the torch of joy into the dimness of the crabby, the mundane and the unappreciative to “help you enjoy life.” Try visiting any of our 175 parks and see the wonderful facilities with so many unique attractions and museums, supported by an amazing number of community partner organizations and happy volunteers. Get outside; it’ll do something for your attitude.

From the March 9-15, 2011, issue

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