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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Fleecing City Parks and Libraries: part one - Killing our Neighborhoods

Fleecing Parks and Libraries: part one
Killing our Neighborhoods

What makes your neighborhood livable? Look on any home buyers' web site and you'll see listed things like local schools, crime level, parks, and libraries.

It's a fact of life that healthy parks and libraries are integral to defining livability in our neighborhoods. How 'good' these important neighborhood components are directly affects the quality of our neighborhoods. It also affects our home and property values.

Courtesy of the Los Angeles City Council and Mayor, your neighborhoods are about to go down the toilet.

Your home values, too.

Parks and Libraries are on the chopping block, with cuts estimated to approach 50% this year alone in both budget and workforce numbers.

Similar to what happened in the immediate aftermath of the passage of Prop 13, you will be seeing closed, unmonitored, underutilized, and poorly-maintained Parks and Library facilities everywhere in Los Angeles.

Worst of all, most of the monetary cuts directly violate the City Charter.

That makes this vicious fleecing illegal.

Parks and libraries are the first things cut by politicians when times get tough. The City Charter voted in by the people in 2000 wisely made very specific provisions to protect Parks and Libraries during difficult economic times. A set percentage of assessed property tax valuation is given to the Departments of Recreation and Parks and Libraries for their operations. This amount makes up the majority of each department's annual operational budget. For 2010-2011, the City Charter-mandated appropriations for the Department of Recreation and Parks alone has been stated in City documents to be $141 million. Doing a little math gives a value of roughly $76 million for Libraries.

The will of the people in legislating support for these departments is very clear: by protecting Libraries and Parks during difficult times, the people are legislating their support for these integral parts of their neighborhoods, homes and communities.

The wisdom of City Charter authors, supporters, and the overall will of the people is being sorely tested at this very moment in time. The CAO by way of the Mayor made his recommendations via his "Three-Year Plan to Sustainability" last month to the City Council. Buried in that 270 page document are plans that will change your neighborhood permanently, and not for the better.

Under the auspices of recouping the ever-nebulous "indirect costs", the plan is to sweep as much of these departments' operational budgets as possible from them and put it back into the General Fund. However, the City Charter states specifically that the removal of these particular funds for the General Fund is prohibited.

That isn't stopping the City Council, CAO, and Mayor.

In Fleecing Parks and Libraries: Part One, the CAO recommendation sweeps City Charter-mandated funding from both departments into the General fund in two ways: by forcing the departments to pay utilities, and by forcing departments to pay pension liabilities.

Both these actions - referred to as indirect cost recovery - remove City Charter-mandated funding from Parks and Libraries and places it in the General Fund. The pension-liabilities transfer does this directly, and is therefore a clear violation of the City Charter.

The utilities charge-back is quite a bit more sneaky. This action funnels dollars Charter-mandated for Library- and Parks-use into a City-owned utility - the DWP for the most part. From the DWP, the Mayor and City Council then transfer the funds back to the General Fund for different, now unrestricted uses.

This is clearly a method of laundering Parks and Library dollars for new uses, plain and simple. It serves no other purpose.

What great savings do these crippling actions achieve? After all, we're being told over and over and over that Los Angeles is in an economic crisis. If our neighborhoods are to be trashed by the City, and they're going to do it illegally, we hope it's really really really necessary. Right?

Wrong. Although the cost to Parks and Libraries peaks out at almost 50% of their entire operational budgets, the CAO predicts the monetary savings to the General Fund at just $4 million from Recreation and Parks, and $2 million from Libraries in 2010-2011.

Crime and blight increase where lack of positive use proliferates, with untold additional costs in addressing related criminal activity. Did the CAO include these costs in his analysis? No. Did the CAO include the indirect costs related to decreasing home values, neighborhood degradation, and livability? No.

Such a catastrophic price to our home, neighborhoods, and communities for a relatively small amount of realized savings. Is this why we voted our public representatives into office?

Other questions about this fleecing must be asked.

Why does Los Angeles even have a City-owned utility if the City is charging itself internally? To avoid this exact thing was one of the arguments for acquiring the DWP in the first place.

Apparently these utilities charges are being made selectively, too, charging specific departments and department activities while ignoring others.

Where does "Shared Sacrifice" play into this when every single City department uses utilities to fulfill their individual, specific missions of serving the citizens of Los Angeles. If all are acting to perform their mission, why aren't all being charged equally?

Some members of the public are calling this laundering of City-Charter-mandated funding for Parks and Libraries 'funny money', but no one will be laughing when the impact hits our neighborhoods.

Unless neighborhoods, homeowners groups, libraries and parks supporters band together and fight to uphold the City Charter on behalf of Parks and Libraries, our neighborhoods -- all of our neighborhoods -- are in for some very bad times.