Challenges State, County Over Non-Rural Rating : Avalon Files Suit to Gain Senior Funds

Times Staff Writer

Avalon is a picturesque city that covers one square mile of Santa Catalina Island's 76 square miles and has a permanent population of only about 2,200. Most of its residents drive golf carts around town rather than automobiles, and its mayor often attends City Council meetings sans coat and tie and wearing a cowboy hat.

About 86% of the island is a nature preserve. A special electronic card key is required to enter the island's interior, where buffalo, wild boar, deer and wild goats roam freely over the rugged terrain.

Yet, according to state and Los Angeles County officials, Avalon is not rural.

Avalon disagrees, and the city filed suit Tuesday in Los Angeles Superior Court against the state and county in an effort to get money the city did not receive under the Senior Center Bond Act of 1984, partly because Avalon was not considered to be rural.

$50 Million Statewide

The act provides $50 million to cities statewide for construction or renovation of senior citizens centers. The Los Angeles County Department of Community and Senior Citizen Services acts as the Area Agency on Aging to distribute the state funds.

In ranking proposals, according to the act, the agency "shall give priority consideration to fund proposals which are from rural or low-income and racial or ethnic minority areas."

An advisory panel in October recommended that Avalon be among the four cities in the 4th Supervisorial District with the highest priority for receiving grants, according to the panel's rating sheet, partly because Avalon was considered rural. The city had asked for $435,800 to construct a senior center for health and recreational programs and to provide meals. The panel suggested awarding $309,200.

But when those recommendations reached the county Agency on Aging in November, Avalon was dropped to ninth out of 15 applicants and was not awarded any of the $2.5 million set aside for the 4th District.

Too Few Elderly

Jonathan Glassman, a spokesman for the county Agency on Aging, said Avalon was dropped because the agency had to try to serve as many people as possible with limited funds, and Avalon's senior-citizen population was too low. About 500 Avalon residents--about 24% of the population--are over the age of 60.

"There was just no way an allocation that substantial could be justified," he said. "It's tough to make allocations when sources are scarce."

Glassman said he could not recall whether Avalon received points for being rural during the ranking of proposals, but he said the agency did not consider the law's criteria to be "hard and fast guidelines to determine ranking."

Of the 15 applications, the agency funded six.

Avalon appealed in December to the state Department of Aging, but the county's decision was upheld.

Gerald Wenker, assistant to the director of the state Department of Aging, said that because Los Angeles County is considered an urban area, all cities within the county are considered urban, even desert areas and islands. He said the advisory panel should not have considered Avalon to be rural when it made its recommendations. Wenker said more than 500 applications were received for money from the year-old program, and Avalon is the only applicant to sue.

Abuse of Discretion Claimed

"That's a relatively absurd position," said City Atty. Michael Jenkins of the state's definition of urban. "Just because the county has urban areas does not mean that it can't have rural areas, too."

The city contends in its suit that the agency abused its discretion by not considering Avalon a rural area to be given priority in funding and asks that its application be reconsidered.

City Manager John Longley said the county also misconstrued the program.

"Gross numbers do not relate to this program," he said, referring to the county's decision to fund the proposals that would affect the most people. "There is a priority in the law for rural programs, irrespective of the other criteria.

"We're rural. . . . I don't see how we can be anything but rural. We are the definition exemplified."

Masako Dolan, a consultant to state Sen. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove), who authored the legislation, said the rural factor was included to give those areas special consideration. But, she said, it does not give them priority over other areas.

Wenker said the recommended appropriations are expected to go to the governor for his signature next month.

"Avalon is upset," he said, "but for the most part it is late in the game."

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