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Sen. Hill Pushes Bills to Ease Park Purchases


SACRAMENTO — A Whittier lawmaker is pushing two pieces of legislation to enable frustrated local park officials to remove what has proved a major roadblock to the purchase of open space in such places as the Whittier Hills.

Under current law, efforts to raise taxes to buy new parkland and upgrade existing parks have been stymied because they must win support from two-thirds of the voters.

That requirement has been a high hurdle, blocking passage in the past seven months of two Los Angeles area ballot measures that would have assessed property owners for parkland acquisition and improvements to local parks and recreation facilities.

As a consequence, state Sen. Frank Hill (R-Whittier) has introduced two measures that either directly or indirectly would eliminate that requirement.

One is a constitutional amendment that would allow voters anywhere in the state to approve funds for local park projects with a simple majority vote.

The second is a bill that would allow Los Angeles County to speed the creation of a countywide open-space district. The district, in turn, would have authority to raise property tax assessments for park projects with the consent of a simple majority of voters.

Hill introduced his proposals in the wake of last November's rejection of Los Angeles County Proposition B, an $817-million measure for recreational and cultural projects. Even though it received 57% of the vote--a margin that most politicians would envy--the measure failed because it did not reach the magic two-thirds mark.

Proposition B funds would have been divided among a variety of projects, including $15 million for land, trails and a visitor center in the Whittier Hills next to Hellman Park, and $1.5 million to renovate fishing facilities and improve public access at the Belmont Pier in Long Beach.

Supporters of changing the law say the need for lowering the required vote for park measures was driven home again last Tuesday when city of Los Angeles voters went to the polls. Proposition 1, a $298.8-million bond measure for parks and recreational facilities, won more than 58% of the vote, which left it 9 percentage points short of the two-thirds support it needed to pass.

Hill's proposed constitutional amendment to allow passage of local parks bonds with a simple majority vote is pending in the Senate. One of its provisions would prevent financing any local park projects with state funds.

Said Hill: "I want the state out of the local park bond business. I think it's fine if we pass a state bond for state parks," but the money should not be used for local recreational facilities.

But local park officials have voiced reservations about that part of Hill's proposal, in part because they have increasingly relied on state bond funds to buy local parkland. These state bonds have met with a relatively high degree of success; they require support from only a majority of voters.

Hill's proposal is backed by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. But it is expected to encounter stiff opposition from anti-tax lawmakers who oppose any effort to alter the two-thirds approval requirement for local bond measures.

Said Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks): "The two-thirds vote for what amounts to a property tax increase is an important protection for the individual against temporary and overbearing majorities."

Hill's second parks-related proposal--his bill to ease creation of a county open-space district--is almost identical to a measure by Assemblyman Terry B. Friedman (D-Los Angeles). Both were introduced on behalf of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a state agency that purchases open space in a wide area stretching from Griffith Park to Point Mugu.

Hill's measure has cleared the Senate and is awaiting action in the Assembly. Friedman's is pending on the Assembly floor. Eventually, they may be joined into one bill.

In pressing the legislation, Esther Feldman, a conservancy official, said Los Angeles County has not adequately addressed its need for preserving open space.

"We just haven't kept up and the needs have continued to grow," said Feldman.

Without the change in the law, the county would have to go through a potentially unwieldy bureaucratic process to set up an open-space district, including notifying owners of more than 2 million parcels of land. The Hill and Friedman proposals would streamline the process, allowing the Board of Supervisors to place a property tax assessment for parks on the ballot as soon as next June. And the assessments would require only a simple majority.

All the county's cities would be eligible to share in the funds, along with the county and conservancy. The exact split has not been determined. But Jim Park, chief of the county's Department of Parks and Recreation planning division, estimated that the county could raise as much as $450 million to buy and maintain parkland if it levies a $20-a-year parcel assessment.

Park said another question yet to be decided is whether land with commercial buildings or apartment houses would be hit with a higher assessment than property with just a single-family home.

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