Budgeting for the maintenance of municipal rec facilities? “That’s a big topic,” says Chris McGinty, superintendent of maintenance with the Framingham (Massachusetts) Parks and Recreation Department (and secretary of the New England Sports Turf Managers Association). After 27 years on the job in Framingham, though, McGinty has developed a good handle on the process.

As is the case for many who manage athletic fields at the municipal level, McGinty’s responsibilities extend beyond the turf to include passive recreation facilities, cemeteries, trees and more. For McGinty, it’s a total of 75 sites. That means the budget categories he works with – construction, equipment (both small and large capital), supplies, irrigation, lighting and many others – often must cover athletic fields in addition to other areas.

A sensible budget

In general, McGinty says the budgets for each category that are set by the town leaders remain relatively static from year to year, perhaps increasing by 1 or 2 percent. Extra money for specific needs – a tree maintenance initiative or a new tractor, for instance – is sometimes added in upon request rather than having to be redirected from existing funds. In these sorts of cases, it’s up to him to make the case to department’s director for why funding outside of the normal budget allotments are necessary.

McGinty points out that, when it comes to budgeting, it’s important to understand how an investment in a field in one year will impact how maintenance for that field must be budgeted in subsequent years. For example, “Every time I put in another irrigation system – and we’re going to putting in two in the next two years – that drives the cost of maintaining those areas up, because they are added to the list of areas that are maintained at a higher rate,” explains McGinty. “Once we add irrigation, we begin fertilizing those areas three times a year, deep-tine aeration, slice seeding, topdressing – all of those things go into those fields.” Even mowing frequency increases, because the irrigated grass doesn’t burn out. So, both materials and labor budgets will need to be increased.

Similarly, if lighting is added to a sports facility, you need to factor in not only the cost of that lighting and utilities, but also the likelihood that use of the field will increase, requiring added maintenance. The key, in these situations, is to be sure that those responsible for allotting funds at the municipal level understand the ramifications that capital expenditures can have on ongoing maintenance budgets, says McGinty.

Putting a budget to work

Setting the budget is one thing, implementing it throughout the course of a year – and staying on track – is another.

Part of working within a budget is common sense. “You put the money in where the most use is,” says McGinty. As one example, to come up with fertilizer needs for the year, it’s a matter of setting rates and applications frequencies for each field, adding up the acreage at each level and calculating how much will be needed to be spent on fertilizer for the year. “That part of the budgeting works like clockwork,” he says.

Of course, there are factors that can’t be controlled that can affect a budget. For example, the rate at which the grass grows will alter mowing frequency, which in turn impacts how often field lines will need to be painted. All of this, obviously, affects both labor and materials expenditures.

Then there are variables, such as the size of the mowers being used, that will affect the time a task takes (the labor costs). McGinty says that experience helps to be able to weight all of these factors when setting a budget, but notes that the Sports Turf Managers Association also has formulas available to assist.

McGinty stresses the importance of working with whoever manages the accounts on an ongoing basis. In his case, he gets regular updates from the office manager about how much money is left in certain accounts. And McGinty began using a new approach last year of setting aside money at the beginning of the fiscal year to cover known expenses. For example, covering the cost of overtime for major events that take place throughout the year (home football games and soccer games, graduation, etc.).

“There are at least 15 events, so I know once my budget starts in July, that money has to be pulled out. So instead of saying I have $100,000 in overtime, I have $75,000, because I need $25,000 for those known events,” he says, using hypothetical round numbers to explain the process. This ensures the money is available when it’s really needed.

At the same time, McGinty says he’s found that it helps to keep a little extra money in each budget category for unforeseen expenses. For example, this past year some turfgrass diseases popped up, so some money was needed for a few fungicide applications. If that money doesn’t end up being needed for an emergency, he can redirect it near the end of the budget cycle. If some monies are left over, he can use it to buy supplies that will always be needed, like grass seed. “You can never have enough grass seed!” says McGinty.

If you want to stretch your budget, minimize excessive wear and tear on fields as much as possible, advises McGinty. “We do a lot of field rotation; moving goals around…we have the ability to run fields north-south and east-west at couple of our locations,” he says. “The teams may not love it, but we need to do it.” Consider that the cost of shifting a field is much less than the cost of renovating it.

Another tip: weigh equipment costs versus labor savings. “A lot of my budget is in salary for seasonal help,” he says. Maintaining the fields as efficiently as possible helps to keep those costs down. For example, Framingham has invested in three 18-foot mowers for the open areas of its fields to minimize mowing time.

Working within constraints

McGinty, like many in his position of managing municipal facilities, doesn’t have the flexibility of working with a bottom-line budget, “which I’d rather have,” he says. In other words, he doesn’t have the ability to move money between accounts depending on where the need is greatest at a given time. For example, he may have an account for painting lines in the parking lots. “You don’t need to paint lines every year in a parking lot,” he points out. If the money is unspent, though, it may not be included in the following year’s budget, when painting is required.

So, a facility manager might look for creative ways to use that money for something within the same category – purchasing the paint that can be used where it’s needed, for example. Or, in the case of irrigation, a new system might cost $30,000, where only $25,000 has been budgeted. In that case, McGinty says it might make sense to contract with the installer for the installation work, which can be paid for through that line item, but then purchase all of the parts and materials from an equipment account and provide those to the installer. Or, maybe the project needs to be broken up into two different years.

Communication is crucial

What advice does McGinty have for others? “When budgets are set, looking from year to year, there has to be some consistency. And that’s the hardest thing for people to understand,” he explains. Spending money to improve a field one year and not following it up the next year with sufficient resources to maintain the field isn’t an ideal situation. McGinty suggests recreation facility managers communicate with field user groups, who might be able convey the message effectively to municipal managers who are setting budgets.

He says it’s in the nature of those who care for municipal facilities to want to make them the best they can be, so that all field users have a great experience. “The people up above you [setting budgets have to realize that if you cut the budget, the standards and quality of the upkeep and the maintenance will change,” he states.