Relying on volunteers for city service is risky
By A TIMES EDITORIAL
Published July 31, 2007
Are volunteers the answer to save popular government recreation and library programs from the budget ax?
In Clearwater, a small group of community activists presented itself as the answer. It promised to come up with not just volunteers, but fundraising ideas, if the city would back off its threat to close the Clearwater Beach branch library.
The City Council agreed to save the beach library, at least for now, by moving it into the Clearwater Beach Recreation Center, which has some under-utilized space.
Now the group of activists has to deliver on its promise of a volunteer roster and fundraising projects such as fish fries. The funds, they say, could be used not only for the library, but also to improve the recreation programming at the center.
The group faces a challenge, because the Clearwater Beach Recreation Center doesn't have a very good record of attracting volunteers.
Here is how many volunteer hours were recorded at the beach recreation center before the recent push: zero.
Contrast that record with the 7,000 hours recorded during the same period at the Countryside Recreation Center, the 7,500 hours at the Long Center, and the 7,000 hours at the Morningside Recreation Center.
The Clearwater Beach community clearly has not stepped up to help at its city recreation center in the recent past. Whether residents will do so now is an open question.
That is only one of the potential problems when volunteers are relied upon to keep government programs operating during times of tight budgets. Volunteers get to choose whether they work or not. They are not obligated in the same way that employees are, and they feel freer to just not show up. They typically cannot be relied upon to perform essential tasks that must be accomplished daily, because there is a risk of the jobs not getting done.
It is also risky to use volunteers in potentially sensitive roles, because they are not under the control of the facility operator - in this case, the city - in the same way that an employee is, and may not feel the same obligation to carry out policies and procedures.
Clearwater Parks and Recreation director Kevin Dunbar shared the volunteer statistics with the City Council during a discussion at its work session Monday. City Council member Paul Gibson had expressed his delight with the promise of volunteers for the Clearwater Beach community and wanted the council to discuss using volunteers for other city programs and facilities to save money.
Clearwater does have many active volunteers helping out with recreation and library programs, among others. For example, the city recently announced its new adopt-a-park program, and already has 21 out of 28 park facilities adopted, Dunbar said.
The volunteer hours Dunbar cited for recreation centers also show a willingness for residents to participate in their city facilities - but more in some neighborhoods than others.
The Clearwater Beach Recreation Center reported zero volunteer hours. Another facility, the Ross Norton Recreation Center, had fewer than 100 volunteer hours, Dunbar said.
That is another potential problem with turning over much responsibility for facility operations to volunteers - some centers will get great turnout, others very little.
Should the neighborhoods that don't produce volunteers therefore lose the quality programming city recreation centers and library branches provide?
Surely not, but as local governments are forced to cut more and more deeply into quality-of-life services, that is the potential outcome. Neighborhoods that have more residents, more residents with free time and with more political clout could end up saving their programs and facilities, while less affluent or less powerful neighborhoods could face shuttered facilities and a dearth of programs.
That kind of disparity would only divide local communities.