Coalition seeks to restore L.A. parks funding

Deep budget cuts to the Los Angeles park system in recent years have resulted in shortened park hours, fewer youth programs and closed pools.

Now, as city lawmakers take up Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s proposed budget for the coming year, a new coalition is lobbying for restoration of park funding. The consortium of conservationists, community leaders and unions, led by developer Steve Soboroff, earned a small victory Monday when two City Council members joined a news conference and signed a pledge to protect parks.

Councilmen Eric Garcetti and Tom LaBonge have voted to cut the Recreation and Parks Department’s budget in the past. Those cuts were necessary during the city’s fiscal crisis “to avoid bankruptcy,” Garcetti said, but it’s time to begin adding services back.

Garcetti, who is running for mayor, said “new models of funding for parks” are needed, including public-private funding partnerships.

Later in the day, Budget and Finance Committee Chair Paul Krekorian echoed the theme when he asked the parks department how the city can increase charitable and business support of recreation programs.

The department has increasingly relied on foundations and private companies to help pay for new facilities or services. In recent years, the Dodgers have built new baseball diamonds at some city parks and Nike has installed new soccer fields. A deal with Kaiser Permanente paid for free swimming lessons for children and helped fund lifeguard training at city pools.

Krekorian said he hoped that city rules on signage in parks wouldn’t prohibit corporate sponsors from taking credit for their contributions. Advertising in city parks has been a sensitive question since last year, when officials sought to allow promotions for a Yogi Bear movie on fences and shelters at several city recreational areas.

Department General Manager Jon Kirk Mukri said that although he welcomes partnerships, he doesn’t think the city can rely entirely on private benefactors.

The City Charter mandates that the department receive at least 0.0325% of the assessed value of all property in the city. But Villaraigosa and the City Council in recent years have required the department to pay an increasing share of its utility bills and employee healthcare and retirement costs.

Villaraigosa’s proposed budget for the 2012-2013 fiscal year calls for a $4-million reduction from current spending levels, Mukri said. That would be $40 million less than five years ago, before the economic slump.

“Let’s not kid ourselves,” he said. “You’re not going to get $40 million” from partnerships with private businesses and charities. He said New York and Chicago spend about $150 per person annually on their parks, while Los Angeles spends only $50 per person.

On the chopping block this year is a program called CLASS Parks designed to keep young people off the streets. The budget also calls for 92 vacant positions at the parks department to be deleted permanently.

The department was hit by layoffs two years ago, when scores of child-care providers and park rangers were let go. Mukri said the 17 remaining park rangers are hardly enough to patrol Griffith Park, much less the whole city.

At the committee meeting Monday, one woman in a sun hat with binoculars around her neck told lawmakers that more funding for park rangers is critical. Sallie Neubauer of the Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park said the rangers “bring peace” to parks.