PICO RIVERA — Caught in a budget crunch, city officials are proposing to turn over control of a public park and equestrian center to its manager because of the park's track record of financial problems.
Without asking for public bids, the city is negotiating with James Gandara, who has been manager of Bicentennial Park and its 168 horse stalls for 11 years. Under the plan he would quit his $44,000-a-year city job to become the private operator of the park complex.
The proposal, which could be approved by Sept. 1, has come under sharp attack by horse owners who claim Gandara would be forced to cut staff and general care in an effort to streamline the 11-year-old operation. The horse owners also are criticizing the city for not allowing others to bid for the control of the park.
Move Seen as Easing Budget
City Manager Dennis Courtemarche said he has recommended shifting control of the park to private management as a way to ease ongoing budget problems.
He also has suggested that all department heads trim programs and services to balance the $22.5-million budget for fiscal year 1989-90. The budget is expected to be passed Monday night.
"It's getting tougher and tougher to make ends meet," Courtemarche said. "Each year we spend more money than we're taking. What we need to do is focus in on how to cut costs."
Courtemarche has made across-the-board budget trims the centerpiece of the proposal he presented to the City Council recently.
In a letter to the council, Courtemarche said spending in recent years has outpaced revenue, and city reserves have been threatened.
"We must live within our revenue structure or we may have to drastically cut our day-to-day operations," he wrote in the June 29 letter. "We have chosen to deal with the issue now."
And by allowing a private manager to operate the campground and stable, the city will have more control over its budget, Courtemarche said.
"We've had tremendous fluctuations," Courtemarche said, adding that the city unexpectedly had to boost the stable's budget by $80,000 last year. "(Now) we can predict how much money we can get, and don't have to worry about coming up with additional funds."
Courtemarche estimates that the city will save up to $500,000 by hiring private managers to run the park and the Pico Rivera Golf Course, near the Whittier Narrows Dam.
City officials are asking for bids from private management teams to run the golf course.
Courtemarche defended the proposal to hire Gandara without opening the job to public bidding because, unlike the golf course, qualified managers would be hard to find, he said.
Although Gandara operated the facility at $80,000 beyond budget projections last fiscal year, Courtemarche believes the longtime stable manager could turn the operation around.
"We have a known quantity," Courtemarche said. "He has knowledge of the facility and we won't miss a beat when we go to the private sector."
A group of disgruntled horse owners, however, disagree that Gandara could make the park profitable without either raising stall fees or laying off employees and cutting back on services and the quality of horse food.
Owners pay between $175 and $225 monthly for food and board for each horse.
"The bottom line is that (Gandara) wants to make money," said Carol Palmer, who boards five thoroughbreds at the small city-owned stable along of the San Gabriel River. In fact, she said, "He wants to make a killing."
Contract 'Is the Pits'
"I know he's going to cut corners," said one horse owner who asked not to be identified for fear of losing stall space. "(The proposed contract) is the pits."
In a telephone interview, Gandara said that the equestrian center and campground have been fiscally unstable for the past four years. He said that under a private agreement, he would have the power to make the operation profitable.
"If I am awarded the contract," he said, "We will keep a very close eye on expenditures."
Gandara denied charges that animal care will suffer under his private management. He said nothing will change immediately if the contract is approved in September. But he hinted that changes may take place in the future.
"I am guaranteeing the same quality of service and management and feed," he said, "contingent on the financial feasibility." He declined to elaborate when questioned.
Security Guard Concerned
Some employees already fear a layoff is imminent under Gandara's contract, said Andy Acuna, a park ranger and night security guard at the complex.
"He is just leading people on," Acuna said. He also said that employees who stayed with Gandara would not receive benefit packages to replace the city benefits that they have now. The city provides the stable's 12 full-time employees with full benefits.
Courtemarche expressed confidence that the quality of the center under Gandara's leadership would not deteriorate.
"(Gandara) could run it more efficiently than we could," Courtemarche said.
Courtemarche said he and Gandara are negotiating the terms on a two-year contract, which is expected to be voted on by the council in September. Courtemarche said that under the tentative agreement, Gandara would operate the stable rent free for the first year as long as he made at least $24,000 in improvements to the stable and campground.
The second year, Gandara would pay $2,000 in monthly rent, Courtemarche said. The contract will be renegotiated at the end of 1991.
By the end of this year, the city plans to hire contractors for other departments and services, from tree trimming to janitorial services, Courtemarche said. He said this could save the city another $300,000.
It is not the first time city officials have cut spending by turning public facilities over to private contractors. In 1980, the city turned over management of the Pico Rivera Sports Arena, next to the equestrian center, to a private management team.