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Building a Joint Agency Two Year Recreation Access Plan from Existing Fund Sites

Building a Joint Agency Two Year Recreation Access Plan from Existing Fund Sites

Article by: Tom Rozman

A state Conservation and Recreation Department was a year into executing a $92M general obligation bond in form of 300 capital projects.  These projects ranged from land purchase of thousands of acres to form new parks along river courses or improve the boundary situations of existing parks to major new construction and facility refurbishment projects.  The bond issue had become sufficiently politicized that a legislative oversight committee had been formed. It placed bond/project execution under substantial scrutiny by both political factions in the state.  The committee required weekly reporting of project timeliness and progress.

The intensity of the effort and project progress concerns had led to the agency director initiating an internal investigation of the design, construction, contracting and real property offices of the agency.   At the start of the planning into execution process this organization was spread throughout the agency in three offices—two in the Parks Division, the Design and Construction office and a real property office that oversaw park specific real property and a real property office at Department that oversaw property management for two other agency divisions as well as state wide programs like Green Space.

Among other findings, the investigation determined that the Design and Construction director was not up to the task of managing the $92M program along with the annual Maintenance Reserve programs, Recreation Access and other project initiatives as well as an immense real property inventory–the then State Parks Region 2 organized in the state’s piedmont was some 40,000 plus acres alone.  As well, the Design and Construction and Real Property organization was not properly organized or staffed to meet the agency wide needs of so large a project program—the bond’s 300 project lines, though largely in parks were in the other divisions as well.  Clearly, the three offices would be better organized for the mission as a consolidated office at department level.

The findings were approved and the ensuing action consolidated the three offices into one and assigned the new Design and Construction Office to department level.  The director was replaced with a new director.  This process began as a new state administration came into office from the opposite party.  As well, a curious phenomenon of the bond program was that as soon as riverfront public property developed, an immediate pressure followed from the public to access the waterfront for fishing and recreation purposes with the attendant issue of the state being unable to grant the access until safety infrastructure had been developed.  Most of the property on purchase was not in a condition to allow the general public access without creating potential liability for the state and major land management issues in terms of fire, poaching, and dumping to name several concerns.

Curiously, the bond made absolutely no provision for early access projects on newly acquired lands.  In fact there were prohibitions against reprogramming unused bond funds for this purpose.  The political pressure was increasing rapidly for access and the new administration was under greater stress with each passing week to remedy the situation.

As a previous budget cutting measure the vacant position of the operations director in the original Design and Construction Office had been sacrificed. And a new administration initiative to push leader interface of state agencies out into the communities instead of concentrating in the capital had led, in State Parks’ case, to a reorganization of the then organized three huge park regions into six districts.  Where the park region managers had been located in the state capital, the district managers were located on the park in the district best suited to act as a district headquarters.

The above initiative freed up one of the region managers who had an undergraduate degree in civil engineering and significant project and operations experience to be reassigned to the new Design and Construction Office.  The Parks Region Manager became the new Capital Outlay Operations Manager.  This position would support the new director of the new Design and Construction Office, developing project process data and analysis and working a range of special projects to name several areas of focus.

The operations manager assumed duties in February and was assigned several special projects immediately.  One came from the Governor—“review all available project/program funding from any accessible source to develop an expedited access program to the newly acquired state parks.” The guidance included developing measures to reprogram unused bond funds and then apply the reprogrammed funds to properly designed access projects. The projected deadline was tight—funded projects were to be in place by end of the state FY in June.

The operations manager promptly initiated the necessary work relating to bond funding which was ultimately successful despite some resistance from some offices and interests. But in the guidance to access other possible funding sources, the manager from previous experience as a park region manager, was aware of one source he had learned was not as well employed as it should be—the state’s Recreation Access Program.

The rest of this case will focus on this aspect of leadership in less than favorable circumstances doing the right thing and achieving a successful result.

The operations manager from experience was aware that an annual amount of funds ($1M) was appropriated each year by the legislature for the program and if not used rolled over to the next year potentially creating accumulation of funds.  Application for funds and selection of projects, this included all levels of government in the state, was made to and by the Department. But final selection and award was by a joint panel of the agency and the Department of Transportation (DOT).  What the manager had determined was that DOT was in fact the final say on funds obligation. Further, it appeared to have been parsimonious on award of funds sufficient that there was a suspicion that some accumulation of funds had occurred.  Perhaps the accumulation was sufficient that if prioritized and applied to the now high visibility need of the administration to develop more timely public access to the new river parks, an almost immediate and funded project solution would occur.

Early outreach to DOT directors and staff met with studied reserve.  The meetings were friendly enough but clearly necessary information was not forthcoming, particularly regarding actual funds currently in the Recreation Access Account.

As well, a necessary by law capital project requirement by the state was the engineering plan’s development and approval through the state’s capital outlay process before project work could begin.  The normal timelines of the plan approval process were seldom less than a year.  Even expedited, a deadline of summer was problematical.

Adding to the challenge, the Department’s planner was in the faction that often tended toward minimizing public impact on the lands.  When approached, his initial reaction was not supportive.  But the plans were the first major stumbling block.  If there were no approved plans, even if the funds were available, there would be no project.  As well, absence of plans or plans to standard would likely be used by DOT as an excuse to control obligation of funds, something that seemed very likely given what appeared to be as yet not communicated countervailing DOT internal priorities for the accumulated funds in the Recreation Access Program.

The agency planner was a professional and though not in support of early public access before a full service park could be developed, he did cooperate and divert his scarce resources to develop the necessary plans. DOT was another issue.

Through a series of meetings the operations director gradually developed more information on the funds in the access program.  As well, the necessary process documents that needed to be in place were completed.  He also pursued a Fabian strategy of indirectly creating DOT and its staff as “white knights” coming to the state’s rescue in a critical time of need—faster and faster the climate changed with DOT.  An in progress review system was employed with its, in this case, weekly meetings to move the project forward by reporting completed tasks required by the developing plan and identifying areas needing attention and solutions.

The DOT staff were professionals and comprehended the need and given their own internal project culture, responded well to the approach. The internal rationale for guarded sharing of funding information gave way to full sharing.  The fund in fact had sufficient capability to initiate a $2.5M project that summer and another $2.5M the following year, the exact amounts necessary to support the series of access projects plans indicated into the new parks.

The result of the combined work of all inter agency and intra-department staff produced the necessary result for the greater public, met the administration’s imperative and in every way did the right thing collectively.

In this case a disparate multi-agency team fashioned on the fly in response to a mission task with a very tight timeline did the job.   In the beginning, significant counter interest to the project existed between offices sufficient to stymie progress.  Through straightforward communication, not caring who got the credit, and appealing to the native professionalism of all concerned, synergy resulted and from nothing at the start, a solid, well resourced result was developed.  By application of these elements of leadership and team formation, the ad hoc project leader was able to develop a vision that all could buy into.

It is also interesting to note that all three principles in the above effort were veterans, one still serving in the state’s Army National Guard having entered the guard after his active army service.  He was a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute.  Another had been a Force Recon Marine and Vietnam combat veteran.  The third was a long service infantry officer and graduate of the U. S. Military Academy. To a degree, the veterans worked as comrades to good effect.  The concept and sense of team was embedded in these soldiers and they responded, even though in a civil sector environment and in different organizations.