County Ax May Cut Deep : Area's Health Services, Libraries and Parks are Main Targets

TIMES STAFF WRITER; Times community correspondent Emily Adams contributed to this story

Not long ago, a group of Lakewood residents, with help from the city and county, raised nearly $25,000 to give the old George Nye Jr. County Library a face lift. Walls were repainted. New carpet laid. Furniture reupholstered. The place looks new, but in a few weeks, it may be boarded up.

Down the street in Cerritos, weekend swimming and fishing expeditions at the county regional park might become summer memories because the park may be closed, the pool drained and the lake not stocked with catfish.

In Long Beach, Paramount, Bell Gardens, Compton, Norwalk, Hawaiian Gardens and Pico Rivera, residents who rely on their local county health clinic for immunizations, prenatal care and other medical services may have to travel to other cities and wait in longer lines for help if the nearby clinics are shut.

And this could be just the beginning.

Sometime next week, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is expected to adopt a budget that cuts deeply into parks and recreation programs, library and health services. In Southeast Los Angeles County, home of some of the state's poorest, most densely populated cities and a region where youth younger than 18 make up a third of the population, local officials keep using one word to describe the impact of the proposed cuts: disastrous.

The hit list includes four of the 10 county-run parks in the Southeast, six county-run swimming pools, seven of 12 county-run clinics, including the Long Beach Comprehensive Health Center, and a dozen of the 23 county libraries.

In addition, funding for gang diversion programs such as the South Gate-based Juvenile Assistance Diversion Effort, which counsels thousands of school-age children and their families, would be slashed.

"It's sad and it's scary," said Bell City Councilman George Cole. "You know, there was a Town Hall meeting in Bell with all the top county departments--the head librarian, the top guy from public works, the head of parks and recreation, the captain of the East L.A. Sheriff's station, the head of the Health Department. And there they are, each making a hundred grand a year, telling a group of about 150 people, most of whom probably make $12,000 a year, why it was necessary to close their parks and their pools.

"Our priorities are all screwed up," Cole said. "What are kids going to do? We are closing parks, swimming pools, libraries. In a lot of these communities, there are too few positive influences and we are going to take away what little exists. I think it's a really big mistake."

Nothing is final yet. The board is still hearing testimony from officials and residents, and, as is typical during budget hearings, everyone is presenting doomsday scenarios of what will happen if their funds are cut. Rumors of layoffs and program reductions are swirling through every department, and until the board adopts a budget, no one is certain what will be sacrificed and what will be spared. But, city officials and county employees say, the county really is facing its worst budget shortfall ever, and that means someone, somewhere down the line, is going to suffer.

Gerry Hertzberg, chief legislative aide to County Supervisor Gloria Molina, said that because of the size of the budget shortfall, "a lot of drastic things can happen and will happen." Hertzberg said Molina, who with Supervisor Deane Dana represents much of the Southeast area, is trying to garner money to keep the libraries in her district open. But, he said, many people do not realize the severity of the problem.

"It takes some time for all this to sink in," Hertzberg said. "A lot of stuff has been thrown out there, and yeah, some of it is politics. And I guess, in the past there has been a lot of crying, 'The sky is falling, the sky is falling.' No one believes now the sky is falling. The sky is getting pretty close to the ground here."

For James Sweet and Roy Snoderly, the budget battle transcends money and politics. It is about life and death.

Sweet, 35, and Snoderly, 27, are battling HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. For the last year, both men have been receiving treatment from the Long Beach Comprehensive Health Center, which houses the only county-run AIDS clinic in southern Los Angeles County.

If the clinic closes, the pair say they will be forced to take an hourlong bus ride to Harbor UCLA--Medical Center, where the best they can hope for is a long wait in the emergency room.

Sweet said a friend, also an AIDS patient, died at Harbor after waiting more than eight hours in the emergency room with pneumonia. Most frightening, the men said, would be the absence of ongoing, personal care.

"If I had to go to Harbor, I would be sick all the time," Snoderly said as he stood outside the clinic. "Here, I can see someone before I am real sick. They look after me."

William T. Fujioka, the center's chief executive officer, said more than 56,000 patients a year visit the center, and most are working poor. He agreed that if the clinics are closed, most patients will end up in Harbor-UCLA's emergency room, where, he said, the wait for those without life-threatening conditions is already more than nine hours.

Yvette Barnes's concern over the budget is not as extreme as Sweet's or Snoderly's. Her life isn't at stake, but her ability to read is.

If the suggested cuts to the county library system are adopted, the Compton branch of the library probably will discontinue its adult literacy program. Barnes, 32, meets a reading tutor at the library once a week.

"I decided to learn to read because I got tired of hiding," Barnes said. "I was always pretending like I could read. . . . Now I can read some things, but I still need the help. And seeing me do this, my sister just decided she was going to learn too."

Compton Head Librarian Joan Eldridge said 24 other students are learning to read in the program, and another 15 are on the waiting list. The adult literacy program is not the only one in jeopardy. The children's reading programs have been put on notice too.

Running her hand over the file folders representing almost 700 children in her summer reading program, Eldridge fights back tears as she considers her future.

"I love this job," she said. "My main mission has always been making a better library and a better community. If this happens, all I can do is do paperwork and supervise employees. That's not what I want."

Yet the Compton Library, which is scheduled to cut back operating hours from 50 to 28 per week, is considered one of the "luckier" branches. Ask librarian Linda Kay Gahan, who turned out the lights at George Nye Jr. Library all day Tuesday to protest county plans to board it up next month.

"This is our day of mourning for the closure of the George Nye," said Gahan, who believes the closure is inevitable.

If the 20-year-old Nye is shut, it will become the second county library in Lakewood this year to fall victim to the budget ax. Last year, the Board of Supervisors ordered the Weingart Library closed, but a determined group, Friends of the Lakewood Libraries, managed to raise enough money to keep it open until March.

June Oury, president of the group, said it simply cost too much money to keep Weingart open. The group has no plans to raise funds to keep George Nye open. Residents have limited funds to contribute and the city is in no shape to help, officials said.

But in Bell Gardens, a city with a hefty tax base thanks to the Bicycle Club card casino, the City Council can afford to shoulder some of the financial burden. The local library is scheduled to reduce its hours to 21, but the council recently agreed to pay the county $75,000 a year to keep the branch open on Saturday, boosting the hours to 36.

In addition, the city already paid the county about $60,000 to keep the John Anson Ford Park open this summer and is negotiating to take control of the 48-acre park, which the county threatened to close as it prepared a budget in March.

"It's going to cost us a lot of money," City Manager Charles Gomez said. "Somewhere around $1 million a year to staff and maintain, but we are doing it simply because the county said they were going to fence and padlock it sometime in April or May."

Not all cities have the money to take control of the parks, pools or libraries that the county would abandon.

In the Compton area, three county-run pools are on the list to be closed next summer, leaving the 90,000 residents, 36% of whom are children, with only one pool. But Compton Mayor Omar Bradley said the city cannot afford to take over the costs of keeping the pools open.

"We are barely making it (as it is)," Bradley said.

In Cerritos, the 82-acre Cerritos Community Regional Park is on the closure list. Bob Maycumber of the county Parks and Recreation budget office said that if the park is closed, all the buildings would be boarded up and "maintenance would just be ignored." He said the county initially discussed building perimeter fences, but decided that would be too expensive. Cerritos City Manager Art Gallucci said the county has not asked the city to take control of the park, but he pointed out that Cerritos already has 24 parks of its own as well as an indoor and an outdoor swimming pool. The city owns 25 of the 82 acres that make up the regional park, Gallucci said.

"I don't know what the council would do if the county walks away," he said. "I can't imagine they would let it be boarded up."

Lakewood city spokesman Don Waldie said that each time a park or library closes, the entire region feels it, because the other libraries, parks and swimming pools and health centers must absorb hundreds more people.

"You can't put up a turnstile at the park and charge non-residents a fee. That's not the way parks work," Waldie said.

Proposed Southeast Area Cuts

The County Board of Supervisors is wrangling with an annual budget that calls for severe cuts. If the budget is passed as written, many Southeast area residents will find that their neighborhood libraries and health clinics have been boarded up and there is no place to send the kids to play because the parks have been closed, the recreation programs canceled and the public swimming pool has been drained. Following is a list of area parks, swimming pools, libraries and health clinics that are on the closure list.

Parks

John Anson Ford Community Regional Park, Bell Gardens

Cerritos Community Regional Park, Cerritos

Gunn Avenue Park, Whittier

La Mirada Community Regional Park, La Mirada

Enterprise Park, Willowbrook

Libraries*

Alondra, Norwalk

Artesia

Bell

Chet Holifield, Montebello

Hollydale, South Gate

George Nye Jr., Lakewood

Hawaiian Gardens

Maywood

Paramount

Rivera, Pico Rivera

South Whittier

Willowbrook

Pools

John Anson Ford, Bell Gardens

Roy Campanella, Compton

Mona Park, Compton

Enterprise Park, Willowbrook

Cerritos Community Regional Park, Cerritos

La Mirada Community Regional Park, La Mirada

Health Centers

Bell Gardens Clinic

Dollarhide Clinic, Compton

Hawaiian Gardens Clinic

Long Beach Comprehensive Health Center

Norwalk Clinic

Paramount Clinic

Pico Rivera Clinic

*Operating hours at remaining county-run libraries could be cut in half.

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