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Park Tax Weighed for Unincorporated Areas

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Every time their tax bills arrive, homeowners in the county’s unincorporated areas shell out money for such services as fire protection, flood control and mosquito abatement--some seven fees in all.

By fall, they may have to cough up an additional fee for parks.

The Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation is quietly exploring the feasibility of making up an $8.5-million budget shortfall by taxing homeowners at least $10 per household.

Parks Director Rodney E. Cooper said the fee may be necessary to avoid shutting down 37 of the county’s 121 parks.

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“The county budget is so tight that it’s my responsibility to bring forth all the options we can find,” Cooper said.

But county sources said the Board of Supervisors is unlikely to impose the parks tax this year because the cash-strapped library system is in greater need of tax-generated funds because of state cutbacks. If Gov. Pete Wilson signs enabling legislation, the supervisors will support a ballot initiative for a library tax instead of imposing the parks fee because they do not want to be seen as advocating two new taxes in one year, the sources said.

By proposing such a politically unpalatable alternative as a new tax, parks officials are hoping to pressure the board into tapping the county’s $20-million reserves and fully funding the department.

This month, the parks department paid two consultants $50,000 to study the feasibility of the proposed tax and come up with a plan to levy it.

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Last year, the parks department threatened to close dozens of parks in the face of a 25% proposed budget cutback. In the end, the board reduced the parks budget by only about 12%, forcing the department to transfer to other government agencies 10 county parks it could no longer afford to maintain, but forestalling any park closures.

All five supervisors were in Washington, D. C., last week and could not be reached for comment.

But an aide to Supervisor Ed Edelman said new taxes may eventually be necessary because of state budget cuts.

“We need to be willing to look at new ways to generate revenue--Ed talks about having to ‘grow the pie,’ ” spokesman Joel Bellman said. “Whether it’s appropriate now remains to be seen.”

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However, an aide to Supervisor Mike Antonovich said the parks department needs to generate more revenue through an aggressive marketing campaign, including promoting its facilities as concert venues.

“Mike strongly opposes the tax,” Peter Whittingham said.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. also opposes the tax, which would be levied by creating an assessment district in the unincorporated areas.

“The new surge of assessment districts since a key court decision in 1992 is a grave concern of ours because they’re clearly and purely a property tax,” said Joel Fox, the group’s president. “Assessment districts could be the undoing of (the property tax-cutting) Prop. 13 because there are no limits and you pile one assessment district on top of another.” Parks officials said past cutbacks in funding have left the department with no fat to trim. The department now has 844 employees, down from 2,231 about 15 years ago, and has eliminated most recreational programs as a result.

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To raise revenue, the department has taken a series of steps, including contracting out the management of its 20 golf courses, transferring the responsibility for roadside trees and median strips to the Department of Public Works, and using welfare recipients and criminals assigned to community service to maintain parks. It saved $600,000 this year simply by processing its own utility bills and pursuing billing errors instead of paying another county department to do it.

Cooper said the department also has created a marketing division and is trying to raise money by recommending that the board approve the rental of parks facilities to bingo operators, among other programs. But he said that such programs could only generate about $1 million annually, far less than $6 million to $8 million the department needs.


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