Industry Trends

Fund Your Park – How to Create a Successful Levy Campaign

Written by: Thomas James, Park Development Specialist 

We’re here with Tom James who recently retired from Medina County Park District. How many years have you worked in parks?

Throughout my career, I’ve spent over forty years working in parks and recreation.

There are many ways to fund a park, tell me about a few of the ways you’ve used.

For a park district, the primary source of funding is a levy – a real-estate tax levy that is voted on by the voters periodically. Another way to fund a park and offset the costs of operation is through user fees and partnerships. In parks, you find facilities like picnic and closed shelters that are rented for a fee. You can even get into corporate partnerships with companies that will sponsor a facility. Partnerships help with capital improvement costs, while user fees can cover the operational costs.

Tom James Leading Group Tours at Various Parks

How does someone come up with the appropriate millage?

It’s sort of a backward process to come up with the levy amount that a district would be seeking. Having a strategic plan is a key element. First, you have to decide what you will do for the public during the levy period, then determine what it will cost. Once you have the cost, you can figure out how many mills you need to meet the budget for your strategic plan – based on the value of property in the district. Typically, in the value of one mill of real estate in the state of Ohio, that’s $35 per $100,000 of valuation of the property.

How many levy campaigns have you been a part of?

I was directly responsible for four levy campaigns during my career at Medina County. I’ve also assisted other park districts with their levy campaigns by providing advice and counsel.

Park Master Plan
Wilcox Park Conceptual Master Plan

Besides the strategic plan, what other types of information do you need to prepare for a levy campaign? How far in advance of your levy should you be thinking about the levy?

Each levy campaign is different depending on where an organization is in its life cycle. If the organization is renewing, replacing or adding to an existing levy, it becomes a simpler task because the levy has already been before the voters. Having a good track record makes it easier to organize for a levy.

You should think about the levy at least a year ahead of when you need to be on the ballot. A brand-new request from a park district that has not yet had a levy typically takes several years to move from concept to getting the levy passed.

City of Canton Public Survey

The strategic plan is a key element to getting a levy passed. Part of that process involves public input during the strategic plan. Many park districts and city park systems use public opinion surveys to help gauge the image of the organization in the eyes of the public. One question typically asked is “are you willing to support the park district by voting for a levy?”. At that point, you can get a good indication of whether you have support in the community.

To create a successful levy, do you need to have some kind of committee?

You must have a committee outside of the government agency to work on the passage of a levy. Government funds can’t be spent to promote a levy or encourage people to vote for a levy. They can be used to explain a levy and what the money will be used for, but none of the material can include anything about supporting the levy in any manner. So, there is a need for a private committee, usually a political action committee formed under the various rules of The Ohio Secretary of State, to collect funds, spread the word about the issue and get support from the community. You can contact your local board of elections office for more information.

levy campaign
Summit County MetroParks Levy Campaign

Explain the difference between a levy committee and a friend’s group.

A levy committee is a political action committee; they are not a charitable organization. You cannot deduct any donations you make to that committee to help pass a levy. A 501(c)(3) group is a charitable organization that is created under the rules of the Internal Revenue Service and is formed to support an organization in its mission. For example, a park district will have a friend’s group, and the sole reason for that friend’s group charter to exist is to support the mission of that park district. Again, under IRS rules, money that is spent on government, public purposes is a charitable contribution. The 501(c)(3) group is one method for Ohio citizens to band together to support the mission of a park organization.