Doing More with Less
There's never a slow season for Nick Caggiano and his Nashua, N.H., parks & rec staff
A single nursery worker keeps this public area beautiful. His main duties include pruning, seasonal color, watering and weeding.
Photos courtesy of the City of Nashua, N.H.
The greatest challenge for any parks and recreation department is meeting the expectations of the city and its facility users with the existing level of personnel and funding. It's a challenge Nick Caggiano has been tackling since September 2000, when he was hired as superintendent of parks and recreation for the city of Nashua, N.H.
It's a big job. The department maintains 38 parks and 21 other squares and public spaces, a total of 900-plus acres of parkland. That encompasses 151.1 acres (6,581,916 square feet) of turf that needs mowing; 33,912 linear feet of fence that needs trimming; and 41 irrigation systems to operate and maintain.
Recreational facilities include: 12 softball fields, 27 baseball fields, 17 rectangular fields, three pools, two wading pools, one splash pad, 17 tennis courts, two skateboard parks, 22 playgrounds, one street hockey court, 14 basketball courts, one bocce court, five ice rinks, one sledding hill, four boat ramps and numerous bike lanes and walking trails. Add to that the picnic areas, parking lots and the supporting structures, restrooms and concession stands.
With a population just shy of 90,000, Nashua is the second largest city in the state. Though the population is fairly static, demand for - and use of - recreational space continues to grow.
Nick Caggiano, who is actively involved in industry associations, has more than 30 years experience as a grounds pro.
Working with rec
"The recreation departments in some cities are independent of grounds and operations. Here we're under the same roof. I believe that helps the information exchange. The rec people and the grounds people out on the field have instant access over the radio or cell phone. That's essential with the heavy use our sports fields get," says Caggiano.
For example, Holman Stadium hosts 160 to 170 baseball games a year, often with tripleheaders on the weekends. It serves three high schools, two colleges and a wood bat summer league, along with American Legion and Babe Ruth league play. Rectangular fields that once hosted "only" soccer now also support lacrosse and cricket play, with growing participation in both.
Caggiano says, "The department has a permit system to schedule and coordinate organized play. But these are true municipal fields - if no permitted use is taking place, anyone can use the open fields for pickup games or practice."
He has developed a strong agronomic program to support that level of activity. A safe playing field is his top priority. With the direct communication with the coaches, athletic directors and league organizers, everyone understands that. "We're all working together," says Caggiano. "They know we'll do everything possible to get the games in, but if I need to close a field, they're OK with it. They count on us to find a way to fit in the makeup games."
The big picture
Some tasks are essential, but tedious, such as park trash pickup and recycling. That's over 220 trash cans on Mondays and Fridays. Other tasks, like the color changeouts of over 4,000 annuals, are occasional, but highly rewarding. Some also seem ever-expanding.
"Whenever we're building a new neighborhood development, bike lanes and walking paths are an automatic feature. That puts pressure on our staff. There's all the litter and trash control. And though the mowing may be only twice a year, it's miles to mow," says Caggiano.
Many, such as event setup and takedown, are behind the scenes actions that set the stage for multi-team sports tournaments or enable citywide celebrations.
There is no downtime. They're also responsible for snow removal operations on eight intercity routes and 14 elementary schools. Caggiano says, "We plow snow for the schools and they don't charge fees for running our 100-team Biddy Basketball winter league that draws 1,600 participants."
The staff makes ice when they're not plowing snow, flooding five areas for skating. It maintains an artificial outdoor rink that has a sub-surface chiller. "We shave the ice with a Zamboni on a three-point hitch pulled behind a tractor, putting down a new ice layer every day," says Caggiano.
Because 70 percent of the action of a baseball or softball game takes place on clay, infields require regular maintenance to play true and provide safe play.
Tree work begins in mid-November with removal of dead trees and major pruning on large trees. They work with a 60-foot bucket truck and a chipper, turning the debris to mulch for the park trails and plant beds.
"We repair picnic tables and build new ones, make other repairs as needed, and focus on interior work in park structures, restrooms and concession stands," says Caggiano.
Caggiano is classified as a Merit employee, one of the non-union, administrative personnel in salaried, rather than hourly, positions. Recreation Program Manager Tom Dwane is also a Merit employee, and reports to Caggiano.
As well as Caggiano, 21 other staff members are assigned to operations: 18 laborers and three foremen. There are two recreation supervisors, and one administrative assistant supports both the operations and recreation staff members. Work hours are closely monitored, and each one is "precious" to the program.
Caggiano has divided the city into three sections, each supervised by a foreman. He says, "Each foreman has a grass crew to do the weekly mowing, trimming, cleaning, trash pickup and removal of graffiti. They also have one or two maintenance personnel to do the more technical tasks such as ball field mounds, project work and repairs. One nursery worker covers the entire city. His primary responsibility is the beautification sites, tackling the low level pruning, flower planting, watering and weeding of beds."
The workload explodes when the weather warms in mid-April. Caggiano adds 40 summer seasonal employees, mainly high school and college students, with start dates ranging from mid-May to mid-June. "Some handle the frequently repeated, tedious tasks, such as trash detail and string line trimming. Others learn field painting or serve as life guards or pool maintenance workers."
Caggiano is a "hands-off" manager. He says, "I empower my people to make decisions and come up with solutions to problems. My job is to keep the ball rolling and, if it's going off track, right the course."
He holds a weekly staff meeting with the three foreman, two rec people and the administrative assistant. It's a one-hour session, every Tuesday at 9 a.m. "We review work orders, each detailing what they have accomplished and what they are planning to do," says Caggiano. "We resolve issues. When necessary, I schedule one-on-one meetings.''
Caggiano does all the hiring for his department and serves on the citywide supervisory interview team. His foremen are involved in the interviewing for their department, along with other superintendents from the team. He says, "We have little turnover in our full-time positions. Most openings are filled in-house from other departments. Though the pay grade is the same, many consider parks and rec a step up to work that is more varied and engaging."
For seasonal personnel, Caggiano looks for high school seniors that he can retain for the next three or four years until they graduate from college or opt for career-related internships. He says, "If they keep coming back, they know the procedures and our expectations. That's a huge savings in training time. I try for a 75 percent return rate, with only 10 new seasonal hires each summer. The last few years, with the tighter job market, we'll get around 200 applicants for those 10 openings."
Since 2000, the city has added 6.34 acres of parkland while reducing the department staff by five. Caggiano uses a combination of equipment, technology and training to improve efficiencies, finding ways to do more with less.
The parks and recreation department falls under the Division of Public Works. Caggiano reports directly to the director, Lisa Fauteux. Approval for any purchase over $10,000 must go through a three-step process. First, the director must approve the request. Next it goes to the public works board; then to Mayor Donnalee Lozeau and the finance board.
Caggiano says, "It takes thorough preparation as there will be in-depth questions at each step. I need to show how a purchase will save time, reduce costs and add to efficiency and productivity."
In 2000, the department had one large-area mower. All other mowing was done with Scag push mowers. The fleet now consists of one Toro 14-foot mower, two 14-foot batwing pull-behind mowers, four 60-inch zero-turn Exmark mowers and nine Wright Stander mowers with 48-inch decks.
Caggiano says, "It now takes two and a half days to mow what used to take a week. We've also invested in some vacs, including a Toro Versa-Vac, that have streamlined our fall leaf removal."
The operations staff handles most projects in-house and must be adept at using a variety of equipment, including this trencher.
On the communications side, one of my first things Caggiano did was get computers at each foreman's desk. "That took us from hand-written forms to computer-based data exchange and communication via email. One of our foremen is now experimenting with a tablet."
The city works through a program called Intelligov and its CitiStat management data tracking system. It generates work orders, each with a completion expectation date called an SLA (service level agreement). These are either generated through phone calls or citizen requests or by data preloaded into the system. For parks and rec, preloaded data includes procedures such as startup and shut down of irrigation systems and agronomic program procedures such as fertilizations, aerations, topdressing and overseeding.
Caggiano says, "We'll get a work order in advance of the work with a specified completion date, allowing us a preset time period to get the work done. For example, an April SLA on irrigation system startup would specify a May 10 completion. I can track progress during the weekly meetings with my staff. If a completion date is missed, I see a red flag. I can immediately refocus staff action to achieve completion and then analyze the situation to improve performance."
Each department meets monthly with the mayor and her staff to review every work order, check overtime for the month and compare expenses year to year and year to date. At the end of the year, Caggiano gets a summary, a year's end assessment, for review during a meeting with the mayor and the public works director.
Caggiano says, "As well as an analysis of performance, we examine future needs and develop a long-term work list which helps with capital planning and budgeting." Though extensive, the annual meeting only lasts a couple hours, typical of the fast-pace of the East coast.
Sometimes the best option to restore a sports field to a safe and playable condition in the quickest time is to regrass it with big roll sod.
One of the city's biggest green initiatives occurred two and a half years ago when they installed a compressed natural gas (CNG) service station. They now have over 35 trash trucks, two street sweepers and multiple department trucks, including seven in parks and rec, running on CNG. "CNG costs approximately $2.27 a gallon versus about $3.80 for diesel. That's a huge savings," says Caggiano. "We track fuel use and are getting similar miles per gallon with the same power levels and no significant drawbacks. The initial vehicle investment is a bit higher, but there was an offsetting energy grant for CNG engines."
The department has a central operating system for all sports field lighting installed since 2000. It's a Musco system package with schedule monitoring and on and off capabilities that supervisors can control from their cell phones.
He's working with Bisco Irrigation on computerized control of the 41 irrigation systems, with the goal of one central control system. He says, "The technology is not quite there for the distance we need to cover. We've enhanced, replaced or newly installed 39 of the 41 systems, improving our efficiency. But more precise control would reduce labor needs and improve our water use and energy costs. It's all about doing more with less."
Suz Trusty is a partner with her husband, Steve, in Trusty & Associates, Council Bluffs, Iowa. They each have been involved with the green industry for more than 40 years. Contact her at email@example.com.