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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Soboroff's parks commercialization plan completely misses the real parks funding problem

In a recent commentary on KPCCParks Save chairman Steve Soboroff bemoans the huge funding cuts suffered by City parks during the past five years. Not surprisingly, Soboroff claims that the cure to these cuts is:   (drum roll)  commercial partnerships!  No surprise coming from Soboroff, but City parks stakeholders already vehemently rejected the first real attempt for blatant parks commercialization two years ago when Warner Bros tried to blanket parks with advertising for their Yogi Bear film. SoCal Connected covered the complete public rejection of this attempt in detail. So this is probably a non-starter.

In all honesty, Soboroff's push for commercialization as a cure to parks budget cuts completely missed the real issue. The truth of the matter is that recent parks budget cuts are actually a brazen and shameless violation of the Los Angeles City Charter, something Soboroff fails to acknowledge, much less address.

In 1925, realizing even then that parks are one of the first cuts made when funds become tight, the Citizens of Los Angeles saw fit to protect City parks outright from being decimated during times of economic hardship. They wrote directly into the City Charter that a percentage (.0325%) of City property assessed valuations would go directly to the Parks Department  (the Parks & Playgrounds Dept at that time) for its exclusive use. The Charter-mandated parks funds are controlled by the Recreation and Parks Commissioners solely for use by the Dept. of Recreation and Parks.

When the City Charter was updated in 2000, this City Charter mandate was continued by the People of Los Angeles, reaffirming their protection of City parks. These dedicated parks funds still constitute the majority of the budget for the Department of Recreation and Parks and parks programming today.

Unfortunately, as this most recent budget crisis hit, City officials began looking anywhere they could for new monies.  In 2008,  Mayor Villaraigosa's top aides came up with a plan to get their hands on these dedicated, Charter-mandated funds: chargebacks. The scheme would cover budget holes through charges levied on the Dept. of Recreation and Parks by other City departments under Villaraigosa's "Full Cost Recovery" plan. Their oft-quoted rationale was 'Recreation and Parks should have to pay their bills'.

And boy, did they pay! Last year a record $50 million was charged back from Charter-mandated parks funding, representing 36% of the entire fund. "Full Cost Recovery" is incremental, so the budget for FY14 will take even more of the dedicated parks funds from our parks.

The Charter mandate for City parks was enacted precisely to protect our parks from these hard times. Yet these chargebacks proffered by Mayor Villaraigosa and supported by the entire City Council completely violate this mandate of the people of Los Angeles. 

Clearly the City knows they have no legal right to chargeback these Charter-Mandated funds from either the Department of Recreation and Parks, or Libraries. The Library Dept. had the same Charter allocation as Recreation and Parks. Unfortunately, when voters passed Prop L for Libraries in 2011, they had no idea that the City had covered their legal butts on chargebacks by adding a second part to Prop L forcing Libraries "to pay their bills" - effectively removing the Charter-mandate for Libraries. But not for Recreation and Parks.

The results of the City's City-Charter violation could be devastating. Recreation and Parks has outlined the consequences of chargebacks in recent budget process documents, warning that the pursuit of "Full Cost Recovery" may ultimately result in the complete loss of the recreation function of the department (pg. 215 of this document).  Imagine no money for recreation in a city the size of Los Angeles! This is simply criminal. Yet our electeds continue to shamelessly ignore the damage from chargebacks. A lawsuit by the Citizens of Los Angeles against our own government is likely the only thing that will correct this willful violation of the City Charter and force our representatives to do the right thing.

We wrote up a full listing of the various chargebacks in FY12 with an analysis of each ( Mayor's Budget for Rec and Parks Target's LA's Most-Underprivileged ) for those interested in the detail.

You might think that, logically, the chargebacks would be equitable among the many City departments. But they aren't, hitting Recreation and Parks and Libraries by far the heaviest.

One of the chargebacks to the Dept. of Recreation and Parks (a City Department) forces them to pay the Dept. of Water and Power (a City-owned utility). Forcing the Recreation and Parks commission to "willingly" pay the Dept. of Water and Power is simply one way to launder the Charter-mandated parks funds for the General Fund through the Dept. of Water and Power. The City Council then withdraws those funds, now clean and free of the Charter-mandate and lost within lump sums in the hundreds of millions of dollars from LADWP allocated for the City's General Fund each year.

If  the Dept. of Recreation and Parks must pay LADWP, then there is one burning question that demands a public response from City officials before any new budget is signed:
If, as the City Attorney repeatedly claims, Dept. of Recreation and Parks must pay their LADWP bill the same as any other rate payer, then why doesn't the Dept. of Recreation and Parks receive franchise fees from LADWP for the thousands of acres of park land and park resources they use -- just like LADWP would have to pay to any other ratepayer whose land and resources they use?

Wouldn't this be both playing fair and helping our parks as one would hope our electeds would want to do?
Sadly, the answer is that the exchange would probably be an equal exchange, and losing those General Fund dollars nicely laundered through the Bank of LADWP is not on our electeds' agenda. That said, Eric Garcetti is a signatory to Parks Save and if elected, he must be made to keep his pledge and correct this ongoing crime against the will of the People of Los Angeles.