County budget cuts necessitate volunteerism

PORT ORCHARD — Kitsap County has cut back personnel and service in the face of budget deficits, increasing the importance of volunteer service for both the county and the volunteers themselves.

“We’re no longer just looking for people who can clear trails and plant trees,” said Parks and Recreation Director Chip Faver. “We’re most in need of people who have the means, motivation and network to contribute to their community in a substantial way.”

Faver doesn’t minimize the importance of the standard volunteer. Those who spend a few days a year cleaning up the park are as important as ever.

But the modern volunteer is a student or a retiree who wants to develop new skills or interests.

In an economic downturn, both the talent pool and the needs for services change, so a volunteer might work on a spreadsheet or make recommendations that contribute to the decision-making process.

Kitsap County has relied on volunteers for several years to supplement the paid staff.

The Volunteer Services Division was established in 1999 under the supervision of Jan Koske, who still holds the same position.

In this capacity, she determines which jobs can be filled by volunteers, advertises for the positions and screens the applicants.

Koske estimates that 3,816 volunteers provide $3.6 million in services. This about doubles 1999 levels, when 1,745 volunteers did $2.1 million worth of work.

If someone applies who doesn’t meet the requirements Koske will suggest another position, either within the county or at another local agency.

Koske said that volunteers cannot be categorized.

“There are a lot of different reasons why people volunteer,” she said. “They may be retired and looking for a way to keep their mind sharp. They may be lonely, or looking for something to do. But while there are many different reasons, there is the underlying desire to contribute to county government and give back to the community.”

The largest volunteer group may be retirees, but there are a lot of young people who come forward. They are looking for training or experience, or just to learn.

In some cases, they have a long-term goal of running for public office and are looking for a starting point.

“There are many different kinds of kids in the same way that adults are different,” Koske said. “Sometimes a teenager volunteers and I have trouble convincing the agency to take them. But a lot of teenagers are very dedicated and responsible. We need to be careful not to paint all teenagers with the same brush.”

There are available opportunities for every skill and interest. Volunteer boards — the art and veterans boards, for example — meet regularly, with four separate community advisory groups.

Additionally, a task force may be formed to study a specific issue, like NASCAR or parks.

Boards are also formed to respond to specific needs, such as the Citizen’s Budget Committee.

This board, assembled earlier this year, was in response to a budget crisis on the horizon and was charged with developing long-term strategy rather than specific cuts.

When the economy crashed, its importance was magnified.

Shannon Childs, Kitsap Bank’s vice president for marketing, said the benefit goes both ways. She has a long-standing interest in government, and serving on the board becomes part of her education.

And as a member of the business community she can bring forward private sector techniques the county may have not thought to incorporate.

“This has been fascinating for me,” she said. “I have learned why government does some of the things that it does. There are a lot of different viewpoints coming together, and there are a lot of fresh ideas that emerge that will translate into things the county can use.”

Childs said she has learned about which programs are mandated by the state and which are discretionary.

“After all the mandates there isn’t a whole lot left to work with,” she said.

Park maintenance is one “discretionary” expense which forces Faver to rely on volunteers to preserve what makes it worth moving to Kitsap in the first place.

So he recruits people to serve as “stewards” for a certain location, making a long-term commitment to its care and maintenance.

The stewards implement their own strategy, and get a sense of ownership that increases community pride.

“Volunteers are treated with professional respect,” she said. “They should feel that they are doing meaningful work.”

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