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You paid for San Marino to play

The thing about the Grinch was that he came around in the end.

No such thing has happened in San Marino, one of California’s wealthiest communities, where town leaders discourage nonresidents from using Lacy Park by sticking them with an entrance fee on weekends.

City Manager Matt Ballantyne tells me there has been zero discussion about reviewing the policy, so our only option is to keep the pressure up.

As I reported, I wasn’t all that steamed about the $4 outsider fee until I discovered the gated park has been upgraded with several hundred thousand dollars in state funds over the years. In other words, I and other nonresidents have paid for the improvements.

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Readers by the dozens shared my pique, and one Pasadena resident typified the response.

“I am outraged that the city receives state money -- I had no idea,” wrote Sally Howell, who lives near Lacy Park and has used it for years. Howell believes the fees are charged so Lacy won’t become “a park full of brown-skinned people” from Alhambra and El Sereno.

San Marino City Council members insisted that wasn’t the case. They told me that despite the substantial relative wealth of residents, city funds are tight because there’s virtually no sales tax revenue. They said the park fees, instituted in 1990 and raised from $3 to $4 last month, were to cover the cost of park staff and upkeep.

You may recall that in my first column on this subject, I promised to check with the state parks department to see if it’s legal for a city to receive state funds and still charge nonresidents.

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Patti Keating, a state parks official, researched the matter and told me San Marino is in the clear. She said that despite the city’s having received more than $600,000 in state funds for Lacy projects, state code allows a city to charge nonresident fees as long as they are reasonable and not excessive.

If that raises your blood pressure, so will the tip I got from three readers:

Even federal funds have been used to upgrade Lacy Park.

This was confirmed by Elisa Vasquez and Linda Jenkins at the L.A. County Community Development Commission. They told me that San Marino has in the past received nearly $70,000 annually in Community Development Block Grants.

Excuse me?

The U.S. Housing and Urban Development website on the block grant program describes it as a way “to provide services to the most vulnerable in our communities” and as “an important tool for helping local governments tackle serious challenges facing their communities.”

One year, I’m told by Jenkins, San Marino used an unspecified portion of the federal grant for the serious challenge of building an apron around the Lacy Park playground. I guess this was so “the most vulnerable” children of San Marino didn’t fall and rip their knickers.

As with state money, the federal block grant program allows a city to charge nonresident fees as long as they’re reasonable and not excessive, according to Jenkins. But at both the state and federal levels, no legal definition of “reasonable” is provided.

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I would therefore like to argue, here in the court of public opinion, that there is nothing demonstrably “reasonable” about the $4 weekend fee at Lacy Park.

Does South Pasadena charge San Marinans and other nonresidents $4 to use the perfectly lovely Garfield Park? No.

Does Los Angeles stick it to nonresidents who use the spectacular Griffith Park? Of course not.

I’m told by Ballantyne that the weekend fee generates $60,000 a year. But the extra part-time staff needed on Saturdays and Sundays costs San Marino only $33,000.

With an annual budget of $540,000, it’s not as if Lacy is strapped. So how else are we to view the weekend fee but as an attempt to make a public park a private club?

Peggy Ebright wrote to say that as a resident of San Marino for more than 40 years, she’s never seen “snobbishness and exclusiveness” in her town. She argued that the park was trashed by visitors before the fees discouraged large crowds, and I can respect her desire to maintain Lacy as the fine little gem that it is, especially given the limited parking.

But another San Marino resident, Gregory Evans, made the very point I’ve been hammering away at.

“It is wrong to take federal or state money for park improvements and then to deny access to the public by imposition of an entry fee,” wrote Evans, who said he was ashamed by the unfriendly policy.

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While in San Marino, I noticed that a library was under construction and nearly completed. Will nonresidents be charged an entry fee there, too?

Not at all, said the city manager.

And how did the city pay for the library, given its claim that the cupboard is bare?

The $16-million project got $9 million in private donations, including $4 million from a single San Marino resident. The remainder, or about $7 million, came out of the city budget.

With all that money floating around, I’m having trouble understanding why Lacy Park needs a nonresident fee -- as well as our state and federal tax dollars -- to stay afloat.

But I’m in a generous mood this holiday season. I think I’ll give San Marino city officials a little more time to rethink the policy before I start organizing the bus caravans.

Is overnight camping allowed, I wonder?

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steve.lopez@latimes.com


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