Dedicated to the Ones They Love

Parks & Libraries: Dedicated Funding

Dedicated nonprofits like the Austin Parks Foundation and the Austin Public Library Foundation aren't intended to replace core funding for city programs. Yet as the recession bites into city funds, the line between operational requirement and enhancement projects has grown blurry.

For the Parks Foundation, part of its workload exists because the city's Parks and Recreation Department is overstretched and understaffed. That's where its special projects can help fill the gap. Executive Director Charlie McCabe explained that while membership is down, "on the flip side, we're seeing a lot of volunteers, and for a two-person nonprofit, that's really a boon." This year, 2,500 Austinites turned out to help at the annual It's My Park Day, up almost a thousand from last year, while local groups have launched 18 new Adopt-a-Park projects. Conversely, McCabe said, one-off events "are a lot harder to fundraise for, just because you usually ask for local business to cover the costs and they just have less money to spend."

It's a similar story in the public libraries, where the recession has seen an increase in visitors appreciative of free services. The total number of checkouts over the past year was up 11% over the same period the previous year, while new library card applications rose 20%. But even with the economy in flux, donations to the Library Foundation have stayed static. "Maybe it's just that we weren't raising enough in recent years," said Executive Director Tim Staley, "but a lot of it has to do with the fact that we do have loyal supporters who understand that now is a very important time to support the libraries."

The local charities are adapting to flat funds. Staley said, "We're strategic about the programs we decide to sponsor, and we make sure that we have the support for it before we initiate it." That doesn't mean everything can wait for another day. In 2006, voters approved $85 million in bonds for parks and recreation centers and $90 million for libraries. With projects breaking ground now, the pressure is on to make enhancement projects part of the new construction. In September, the city inked a deal with architecture firm Lake|Flato for the new central library, including a 250-seat auditorium. The Library Foundation hopes to raise $300,000 to make that a state-of-the-art facility. Staley said: "We'll want to use the latest technology, so it can be used to screen movies and lectures and readings. Well, maybe the library's budget doesn't allow for that, so why don't we pay for that?"

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