How Valuable is that Slice of Pie?

What do you truly value in life? How do you know? And if you're not completely certain, how would you find out?
In the world of personal finance, which I've been very interested in lately, you would go and look to see what you spent your money on. You would track every penny that you spent, categorize each expenditure, and the things that you spent the most on are likely what you value most.

Except, generally it doesn't actually go this way. Most people that try this exercise find that what they actually spend their money on has nothing to do with what they feel is truly valuable in life. Fast food and trinkets from Amazon, it turns out, don’t actually make us measurably happier. Neither do bulging waistlines and rooms full of junk. Adjusting our expenditure pie chart to give larger slices to that which we truly value is one way to a happier, healthier, and wealthier life.   

Now that I’ve solved everyone’s personal finance problems, let’s expand the view a little bit and look at public entity budgets in the same perspective. If you were to look at most state, county, or city budgets, it would appear that we most value educating drivers so we can turn around and put them in jail. Now clearly that isn't true, but the fact remains that the biggest pie slices in government budgets are generally education, transportation, and public safety.

But just like with personal budgets, these actual expenditures don't necessarily reflect our true values as citizens. In fact, we spend very little, comparatively, on the things that research indicates are most valuable to us.

Research recently published by the National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA) found, among other things, that nine in ten Americans agree that parks and recreation is an important local government service. There was also widespread agreement among the general public that their local government should prioritize protecting natural resources, with 93 percent of survey respondents indicating they felt it was critical that their local government “develop local parks, trails, and greenspaces near bodies of water for the purpose of protecting natural resources” in their community.

The national survey also found that 85 percent of Americans feel that nearby park, playground, open space, or recreation centers are important factors in deciding where they want to live. Additionally, nearly nine in ten respondents said that they desired a host of outdoor recreation options for their community including: access to secluded outdoor spaces where they can relax and reflect; places that provide a scenic view of the nature around them; nearby access to lakes, ponds, rivers, and other water bodies to swim, fish, or boat; and nearby trail networks for walking, running, hiking, and biking. Eight in ten respondents indicated demand for local amenities that provide the opportunity to observe wildlife and seven in ten wanted nearby campgrounds.

These national findings complement the findings from surveys done throughout the Iowa by agencies such as the Iowa Travel Federation and Iowa Workforce Development which found that people place high value on parks, natural resources, and outdoor recreation amenities in their communities.

Unfortunately, public demand doesn't necessarily translate into political will. In fact, it seems sometimes the opposite is true. Just last year the Iowa legislature proposed legislation that would all but ban public land acquisition by cities, counties, and state agencies. The bill died in committee after thousands of Iowans flooded the capitol in opposition to it. But that battle will continue. Leadership in Des Moines has promised to bring forth similar legislation in the coming sessions.

Similarly, the state's Resource Enhancement and Protection program (REAP), which has been one of the most effective programs at establishing and growing parks and outdoor recreation throughout the state in its 30-year history, has never been fully funded. Two years ago, the state cut REAP funding by 25 percent and diverted a few extra million from the program to help with state park operations that were suffering on account of the 50 percent budget cut the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) was forced to absorb over the past decade.

To top it all off, if the state doesn't take action, the REAP program will cease to exist after 2021 due to the sunset clause in the existing legislation.

So as our hometowns and state struggle to recruit new residents and a broader workforce, maybe it's time to take a hard look at our budgets to determine if we really are spending on the things that we value most. Yes, education, transportation, and public safety will always be the largest slices of the pie. But if growing the slice that goes to parks and natural resources attracts more taxpayers to our communities, the entire pie gets bigger.

And who doesn’t value more pie?

This is a modified piece that originally appeared in my "Living Land" column in The Hawk Eye.

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