There is a new air of desperation to the plea for volunteers from libraries, parks and other public facilities. That is because whether those facilities are shuttered or remain open to the public depends not just on dollars, but on how many dedicated volunteers step forward to help operate them.
That's right — operate them. Local government revenues began shrinking almost three years ago, and each year since, the necessitated cuts in staff have gone a little deeper. Parks, recreation, libraries and other services labeled "non-essential" are bearing the brunt of the cuts as the mission of local government shrinks.
Who will fill the gap? Well, government officials hope you will. And some of the jobs they have for you to do aren't easy.
Parks need to be maintained, and there aren't enough employees left to do it all, especially during the summer growing season. There is mowing, weeding, pruning and exotic vegetation removal to be done on acres and acres of land in every park. Pinellas County says it needs volunteers to help with maintenance in all its parks — oh, and it needs administrative help in parks, too.
Some residents have complained about staff naturalists being laid off at parks and preserves. Pinellas has a solution in mind: "ecology-minded volunteers" who will be designated as "roving naturalists" to answer visitors' questions.
Weedon Island, a county preserve in St. Petersburg, needs receptionists, docents, education assistants, hiking guides, maintenance workers and — get this — experienced archaeologists who will volunteer for "research at the Weedon Island Preserve Cultural and Natural History Center" and "assist in the analysis of cultural materials, enter data into spreadsheets and databases, assist staff with special programs, and help monitor (archaeological) sites."
The Pinellas Trail needs volunteer rangers. The Botanical Gardens seeks volunteer gardeners. Libraries need all the help they can get.
Many of these facilities already have reduced their hours of operation. They have laid off staff members. They have skinnied down their operations in an effort to keep going. For example, Clearwater's library director, Barbara Pickell, eliminated part-time staffers last year because of budget cuts. Now, facing even more cuts, she is considering converting some full-time positions to part time to save money. That change in staffing model is occurring in other local government facilities, too.
A model based on part-time staffers presents some unique challenges in any workplace. So does a staffing model dependent on volunteers. No matter how willing they are, volunteers don't have the same obligation to show up for work that employees do. And managing volunteers is quite different from managing employees, as supervisors soon learn, and requires special flexibility. Some facilities are offering shift work to volunteers or scheduling them for slots as short as two hours. Volunteers are so desperately needed in so many facilities and programs that they can just about write their own job description and schedule and find a place to fit in.
Pinellas' local governments are working now to balance their 2010 budgets and are making decisions about cuts and closings at parks, libraries, recreation centers, nature preserves, museums and public gardens. If you enjoy these facilities and don't want public access to them further reduced, you can show up at budget meetings to object to more cuts. You can also be a volunteer at the facility of your choice. Your help has never been more needed.
Diane Steinle is editor of editorials for north Pinellas editions of the Times.