Increasingly, parks aren’t the place

One after another they arrived at Alum Rock Park’s rustic hills this spring morning, only to be turned back.

Two mountain bikers hoping to catch the sun peeking over San Jose’s eastern foothills appeared first, followed by a busy mom in a minivan looking for a few minutes’ solace.

And then it was Rudy Rosete, a jogger who figured the park’s annual wildflower display would be at its peak. It was, but Rosete couldn’t get in to see it.

Like the others, he was greeted by locked gates and signs that read “Closed Mondays.”

“Closed? I thought that was just the DMV,” said Rosete, clad in sweats for his morning run. “Now it’s our parks?”

The locked gates at the entrance to the 720-acre hikers’ paradise in San Jose represent the extreme endgame in what is happening across California as public parks are being nickeled and dimed by cities and counties facing a second year of budget misery.

Local governments are laying off maintenance workers and slashing budgets for after-school programs. They are closing public restrooms, pulling fire rings off beaches and leaving trash bins to overflow. Fees for sports leagues, enrichment classes and parking are going up.

Though most cities have stopped short of locking up public parks, the effect of tightened budgets has become visible to visitors and is being felt across the state.

The cutbacks come as demand for park space remains strong. Park agencies say they are experiencing record attendance as families look for affordable recreation opportunities close to home, In a 2009 survey, more than 80% of California residents said they visited a local park at least once a year; 68% said they visited monthly.

Parks are “the one sweet thing all residents can enjoy,” said San Jose paint salesman Lawrence Valenzuela, who headed to Alum Rock Park on the first day of his vacation, only to find it padlocked.

“Our youth centers are one of the main ways we combat gangs,” he said. “There are no good choices here.”

The crisis facing parks is the worst since the early 1980s, when the passage of Proposition 13 ravaged local government budgets, said Jane Adams, executive director of the California Parks and Recreation Society. Back then, the cuts were immediate. Today, funding shortages seem to be chronic.

“It’s widespread, it’s deep and it’s continuing,” Adams said.

Since November, San Jose has closed four of its regional parks on Mondays, including Alum Rock, thought to be the first municipal park created in California. The city is considering shutting down nearly half its community centers and, this summer, seven of its nine pools.

Fresno city leaders are accepting bids from nonprofit groups to take over after-school programs at 10 recreational centers. If they don’t find takers, some will close, a recreation official said.

In Sacramento, 40% of the maintenance workers have been let go, leaving parks so ragged that volunteer crews have mobilized to mow lawns, clean out ponds, weed and fix planters. Craig Powell, an attorney who lives near William Land Park south of the state Capitol, said his homeowners association is taking over maintenance tasks.

Parks and recreation programs in Southern California have so far dodged the most draconian measures. But fee increases and reductions in services are becoming commonplace.

Anaheim has eliminated maintenance jobs and privatized the duties. Riverside County will rely on volunteers to clean popular trails. Fullerton will charge sports teams more to keep field lights on at night. Ventura County is charging more to camp near the beach.

And in Los Angeles, proposed layoffs of preschool teachers at 26 child-care centers would force the city to convert the popular facilities to unlicensed centers.

“This place has touched a lot of families positively,” said Tom Trainor, a Los Angeles prosecutor, picking up his 4-year-old son, Gavin, from a program at Mason Park in Chatsworth. “It would be too bad if other families didn’t have that experience too.”

Regina Smith, executive director of the Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Department, said she isn’t happy about the proposed reductions and is focused on maintaining the district’s core mission: keeping parks clean and open. The child-care centers were added at a time when the district was flush, she said.

“The bottom line is: If not that, then what?” Smith said. “Either way, something is going to be on the chopping block.”

Other operations at the city’s 400 parks and 180 recreation centers would continue largely untouched under the proposal to cut 10% from the district’s budget, Smith said.

Parks, along with libraries, are an easy target when budgets are tight.

Cutbacks at the more than 500 parks and recreation agencies statewide vary significantly because of differences in the way they are funded, said Adams, whose group provides professional guidance and advocacy to 4,000 members.

Parks and recreation programs offered by special districts are more shielded from cuts because they have a dedicated source of money from property tax bills, she said. Though property tax revenue has fallen, districts know what to expect and can plan for the lean times.

Programs run by counties are also more protected because they tend to have a specific funding source and can generate revenue by charging fees at regional parks, campgrounds and beaches. Parks programs run by cities, by contrast, must compete for general fund dollars with police, fire, planning and other departments.

Fullerton is a good example of the hard choices cities are making, said Joe Felz, director of community services. To help the city close a $6-million budget gap, he is ending “Night in Fullerton,” a 40-year tradition of artists opening their studios one night a year to the public, Felz said.

Nine sports leagues will be hit with higher fees and asked to pay for field lights. The city is also eliminating a free-rides programs for seniors and cutting some child care and adult education classes, he said.

A cut of $80,000 to the Muckenthaler Center, a city-owned cultural arts center in an elegant Italianate mansion, will probably spell the loss of some music and dance performances. “The Muck,” as locals know it, may also have to cut into free programming for disadvantaged youths.

“Just the other day I took a group of special-needs kids through for free,” said Karen Lucas, a part-time receptionist. “This is not the place to cut. We are a struggling organization that is doing nothing but good for the public.”

Even if cities manage to hack through the coming months unscathed, another year of weak revenue could bring more closures, more layoffs and more bruising to the city parks systems.

“Have we hit bottom?” Felz asked. “We don’t know yet.”