A Modesto-funded league for disabled bowlers almost saw its season cut short because of the city budget crunch, but donors stepped in and saved the program a few weeks ago.
That's just one example of how private dollars are filling growing holes in the city's parks and recreation budget.
Cash contributions are keeping the grass mowed at smaller parks the city can't afford to maintain. Donations bought trail-side benches on the Virginia Corridor and planted daffodils at Monterosso Park.
The demand for private funding to support public spaces is likely to grow. With the parks budget slashed 18 percent this year, officials say they need more help than ever. Officials with the city Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Department plan to form a nonprofit organization to accept tax-deductible donations for department programs.
Some question why taxpayers are being asked to put more of their dollars toward government services. But Parks Director Julie Hannon said private fund raising has become a necessity.
"In the best of all worlds, the tax dollars collected would be able to cover the general fund expenditures, but that just isn't the case, especially at this point in the economy -- and I'm not sure if it will be the case again," she said.
The same scenario is playing out across the state and nation. After California chopped state parks funding, officials looked to corporations and nonprofit groups to sponsor sites threatened with closure. Nationwide about 40 percent of local parks agencies receive funding from a nonprofit group or foundation, according to a 2009 study by the National Recreation and Park Association.
Setting up a nonprofit organization can help parks departments maintain healthy budgets even when city coffers shrink, said Jane Adams, executive director of the California Park and Recreation Society.
"No one can make any guarantees about where general fund dollars will be in the future," Adams said. "We have to create a broader base of funding with the intent of giving some consistency, so that parks and rec is able to continue the services and programs that the community wants."
Modesto's push to collect private donations was inspired in part by Oglebay Park, a municipal park in West Virginia that's sustained entirely by private donations, said Andy Johnson, the parks department's fund development specialist.
Officials visited Oglebay Park a few years ago and came back with visions of starting something similar in Modesto, Johnson said. The city hired Johnson in 2007 to attract more charitable gifts and corporate sponsorships. Until then, the city's fund raising centered mostly on applying for grants.
This year Johnson launched a marketing plan to reach out to potential donors. He's used inserts in utility bills and social media tools such as Twitter to spread the word. In the 2007-08 budget year, the parks department collected $260,000 in cash donations. These gifts dropped to $200,000 in the 2008-09 budget year, but the number of people who donated more than tripled, from 57 to 196.
"It's kind of like the wallets are getting smaller, but the hearts are getting bigger, so way to go, Modesto," City Councilman Dave Lopez said.
Not everyone feels warm and fuzzy about private donors contributing to government-run parks.
"I have real difficulty in the city asking for donations to operate parks and recreation, because it's always been a city service," said Ernie Foote, a member of the Stanislaus Taxpayers Association. "If the public moves into it, I think they're going to try to keep the public in it. I don't think they'll try to take it back."
Residents raised similar concerns earlier this year when the city asked neighborhoods to help pay for mowing and watering at smaller parks.
Others say residents playing a larger financial role in public parks could lead to inequities.
"When private donations are funding a lot of places or programs that normally would be funded by taxpayer dollars, it may be that more affluent areas will be much more willing to spend money to create nice parks, even fix potholes, potentially have a private fire department, or a private security force if there have been cuts to police," said Jessica Levinson, director of political reform at the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles think tank.
But Hannon said such disparities already exist. Some neighborhoods pay special property taxes for parks upkeep while others don't. Johnson said donations to one park -- even in a nicer neighborhood -- relieve pressure on the entire parks system, which benefits everyone.
A nonprofit group or foundation that solicits donations for parks can smooth out those potential inequities, said Adams, with the Park and Recreation Society.
"That's the value of establishing a foundation," Adams said. "The foundation has the whole community in its perspective, and (the foundation's) board, with input from city officials, would be given input about where the greatest need is. That's different than setting up, say, 55 individual neighborhood foundations in Modesto."