Users of L.A. Parks Are Jolted by Higher Fees

Times Staff Writer

It didn't take long for the Guatemalan Unity Information Agency to figure out that putting together this year's health fair would be no walk in the park.

There would be the usual job of recruiting participants for booths and tables at the annual community outreach event, of course. Plus the challenge of spreading the word through Los Angeles' growing Guatemalan immigrant community about the free services and assistance that would be available.

The real jolt came when the nonprofit organization was told that this year it would be required -- for the first time -- to pay thousands of dollars to rent a portion of Lafayette Park in the Westlake district for the fall event.

There would be a $750 parks facility usage fee. And a charge of $50 for each booth or table, plus $25 utility hookup fees and a minimum $500 cleanup deposit. The cash was being demanded by parks officials in response to the city's budget crisis.

"We're a poor organization," said Sandra Luz Gallegos, a representative of the Guatemalan group.

"Is this going to be the only country in the world to charge you to walk in the park? Next, if you run in the park, are they going to charge you 50 cents?"

Actually, running in the park will cost a lot more than that.

A $100 fee must now be paid by organizers of high school cross-country meets conducted in city parks. Those setting up commercial or for-profit races are required to ante up more than $1,500.

The new charges are the result of the city's projected budget shortfall of at least $180 million for the coming fiscal year.

The Recreation and Parks Department has been asked to generate $4.5 million in extra revenue next year from such things as tennis reservations, golf fees, ball field rentals and special events in public parks. In the past, the city has taken in about $22 million annually from such fees.

New fee structures approved by parks commissioners in June and August eliminate the policy of assessing a percentage of the profit made by park users at special events. The plan also boosts fees that officials concede have been "below fair market rate with local competition" for years.

"We were very much under market in some areas," said Linda Barth, a senior management analyst with the department. "We were charging $2 or $4 for sports field per use as opposed to $14 to $25 that other jurisdictions charge."

Sometimes sports leagues were assessed a flat fee at the beginning of the season that paid the city a mere "pennies per hour" of actual ball field use, according to Barth.

The new policy carries a 33% boost (to $20 per hour) for the use of a lighted ball diamond or outdoor basketball court by athletic groups that do not charge participants to play. The charge jumps to $60 an hour for businesses or fee-generating groups. Lighted soccer field fees are $30 and $90 an hour for the same group categories.

A 200-page manual of rates and fees spells out costs for all of the city's parks facilities, including overnight camps, reserved group-picnic areas and the department's new, $130,000 mobile stage. That hydraulically operated performance platform rents out for about $400 a day, plus the cost of as many as four city employees needed to run it.

The new policy also clamps down on the waiver of fees, a common practice in the past. Some groups were also able to bypass fees by getting the parks department to become a "co-sponsor" of their event, said Jane Kolb, a spokeswoman for the recreation agency.

Although golfers were quick to complain in May when word circulated that links fees at the city's 13 courses might go up by $5 a round (they eventually were boosted just $1), there has been little outcry so far over the new charges, according to parks administrators.

Part of that may be that some sports groups are still operating under old use agreements. And part of it may be that recreation officials have created what they call "transition plans" to ease organizations into the new price structure.

Fee increases have been kept modest for users such as the 23 youth sports organizations that use park fields. And other organizations are being counseled about ways they can raise money to cover the new fees.

But some non-sports groups -- such as civic and service clubs, youth organizations sponsored by the United Way, Los Angeles Unified School District groups and private nonprofit recreation agencies -- remain exempt from paying the fees.

All of that is likely to add up to new revenues of about $1.5 million a year -- less than Mayor James K. Hahn is hoping for, Barth said.

"I don't think we're going to achieve the $4.5 million," she said.

The Guatemalan Unity Information Agency, meantime, postponed its November health fair while it grappled with the fees.

On Friday, Rafael Castillo, executive director of the agency, announced that the event would be held Dec. 13 at Lafayette Park.

After it convinced parks officials that the health fair is an educational event at which nothing is sold, his organization was classified as a civic group. It is exempted from paying anything but a refundable cleanup fee, Castillo said.

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