Make an Offer--They Won’t Refuse : Alhambra Has a Gift for Thrift

Times Staff Writer

The sisters at Carmel St. Teresa convent were so impressed with the Alhambra Fire Department’s building safety checks that when the city distributed a catalog listing ways of assisting city agencies and programs, the sisters sent a contribution.

For Ruth Marson, a retired English teacher and an accomplished cellist, many of the suggested gifts seemed a bit steep. But wanting to help, she offered to have her string quartet play for free at city functions, saving the city entertainment costs.

The sisters and Marson are participants in a new fund-raising program in Alhambra that has raised more than $14,000 in cash and thousands of dollars more in donations of equipment and services to the city.

Alhambra started its gift program in May when more than 31,000 copies of a catalog listing items the city needs were mailed to residents and businesses. The list, with items designed to fit every budget, includes everything from $5 firefighting tools to a $35,000 mobile communications center for the city’s disaster preparedness program.

Residents have also been invited to help purchase tax-deductible items such as $545 mannequins used in the Fire Department’s cardiopulmonary resuscitation classes, $200 practice beams for gymnastics classes and $60 shade trees.


Contributions of skills and time have also been solicited. As a result, city officials said, many residents have offered talents such as cake-decorating, tutoring and dancing.

The catalog also pointed out that residents can leave contributions to the city in their wills. But so far, no one has done that.

Cash donations from residents have averaged $50 and been targeted for purchases such as a Christmas tree for the library and dinners for a senior citizens’ banquet. Corporate gifts include a portable generator for the Fire Department from the Alhambra Lawnmower Shop and gift certificates from the Alpha Beta supermarket chain.

The program enables Alhambra to supplement its $42-million budget and help educate residents about what its needs are, said City Managert Kevin Murphy.

There has always been a high degree of community participation in Alhambra, he said. “We saw this as a way of formalizing that.”

The gift catalog concept began about 10 years ago and has been adopted by a number of cities. “It was a matter of one city having a good idea and others picking up on it,” said Victoria Clark, communications director for the League of California Cities.

The program is used by cities mainly as a public relations effort to get people involved, Clark said. Because donations can fluctuate from year to year, a gift catalog program is “not something that a city depends on to run the city,” she said.

Cities usually like to list attention-grabbing items residents can help purchase, Clark said. For example, one city in Arkansas introduced an Adopt a Pothole program that invited citizens to donate money to improve city streets.

“There is something appealing about pointing to a particular pothole that you helped fix,” Clark said.

But the concept has received mixed reviews. Sacramento’s program, which brought in more than $200,000 last year, is now entering its fourth year. But Anaheim, which raised $15,000 over a two-year period, has discontinued its program. The contributions did not justify the expense and time required to print the catalog, said Mary Ann Terry, Anaheim’s recreation services manager.

In Sacramento, the cost of the program was underwritten by Chevron USA, development officer Bill Moskin said. He attributed the success of the Sacramento program to the high quality of its catalog, which has won two design awards, and persistent promotion.

“It has to be sold like anything else,” Moskin said.

Alhambra’s 10-page catalog, paid for by a $5,000 donation from the Edwards Theater, is more modest than Sacramento’s glossy, 32-page color brochure, but it has produced better results than the ones in Monterey Park and Hermosa Beach.

Monterey Park started a gift catalog program three years ago but discontinued it because of minimal results.

“The gift catalog was kind of repetitive,” said Monterey Park City Manager Lloyd de Llamas. “It’s a good device for stimulating community involvement and donations if your community is not already involved in that. We have a high degree of community involvement anyway,” he said.

Gifts from Monterey Park’s catalog program totaled about $2,500, De Llamas said. In contrast, combined donations from Monterey Park’s other donation programs such as its Adopt a Park project and Friends of the Library approached $500,000.

Hermosa Beach has also discontinued its program because it enjoyed only “mild success,” said Mary Rooney, community resources director.

During the last two years, Hermosa Beach received about 40 donations; Alhambra has received more than 50 responses within the last three months.

Rooney said that “if we had the staff to give personal attention, to follow through and really push, it could have been a good program.”

Alhambra has been doing exactly that. “Making the city staff more accessible to people who are interested in giving” and following up on citizen contacts has been instrumental in the program’s success, said Judy Feuer, community services specialist.

For example, the program made the difference in getting 23-year-old office clerk Ileana Irigoyen involved with the community.

Irigoyen, a native of Guatemala and an eight-year Alhambra resident, said she had long wanted to help with the Tournament of Roses but never knew whom to contact.

After Irigoyen spotted Feuer’s name in the catalog, she wrote to volunteer her time through the Gift of Service program and immediately received a call informing her that she was being placed on a list of volunteers for the parade.

“I was really impressed with the response I got,” Irigoyen said.