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Spirit of Giving Brings L.A. County a Windfall : Gifts: Bequests and handouts, including land and a Rolls-Royce, enable government to provide benefits that tax dollars can't. Some items create problems, though.


It takes a wealth of resources to keep the gears of Los Angeles County government turning. But a Rolls-Royce? A sailboat? Slot machines? A cross-country ski machine?

These gifts and hundreds of others have been bestowed on the county in recent years by individuals, corporations and groups--and the pace of giving, officials say, quickens each year around the holiday season.

The largess has included 35 million pairs of latex gloves used by paramedics for protection from infectious disease; 109,000 pounds of dog food to feed hogs at a Sheriff's Department jail facility, and a Thoroughbred horse used for a mounted park patrol.

The gifts have come in a variety of forms: cash, equipment, food, land, services and animals--dead and alive. The county arboretum has received 65 koi fish valued at $139,000, while the Natural History Museum has received fossils and insect specimens. Also donated was a stuffed polar bear, a hunting trophy that belonged to the late Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley.

Although many items might appear quirky, officials say many gifts have practical applications and help relieve the strain on the county's $12-billion budget. And some gifts make life a little more pleasant for wards of the county.

Donations, for example, enable abused and abandoned children in county institutions and indigent patients in county hospitals to receive things that the government cannot afford or cannot use tax dollars to buy, such as clothing, toys and tickets to cultural and sporting events.

"The government doesn't provide for these kids to have a prom dress when they graduate (from) high school," said Barry Chass, finance officer for the Department of Children's Services, which received about $1.25 million in gifts in 1990-91. "Donations are used to give these kids the kinds of things we take for granted."

For indigent children whose parents are hospitalized, "there wouldn't be a Christmas without these donations," said Bobbie Gavigan, director of volunteer programs for County-USC Medical Center. "What we're doing is providing gifts so that the parents who can't get out to shop--who don't have the money either--can give their children presents."

The total value of county donations is not readily available. But officials say county hospitals alone took in nearly $1 million in cash and items last year.

The largest single donation to the county in recent years was $50 million in cash, contributed in 1987 by Walt Disney's widow for construction of the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Some gifts have a direct and immediate impact on county services--books at the libraries, medical equipment at the hospitals, sports equipment at the parks.

A cross-country ski machine is getting a workout at a senior center.

A donated Cadillac is rolled out for Sheriff's Department undercover operations.

Thousands of tulip bulbs donated by commercial nurseries add color each year to the county's botanical gardens.

A Northern California woman recently willed her $2.4-million estate to the mental health department, which once helped her ailing sister. The money has been earmarked for mental health services.

Some donations are difficult to explain. For example, cigarettes have been donated to the county hospitals. Although most hospitals prohibit smoking, some psychiatric patients are allowed to smoke, officials said. "If they're smokers, it calms them down," said Minu Chagolla, office manager in volunteer services at Olive View Medical Center.

The county occasionally accepts gifts, even if it has no immediate use for them. The county recently sold 1,120 acres of vacant land in Utah that it received in a bequest in the 1960s for no apparent reason.

Sometimes, logistical problems are created by contributions, such as the 70,000 boxes of latex gloves donated to the Fire Department.

Valued at $3 million, the gloves were given by a company that had discontinued the line and needed the storage space. The Fire Department found room in a bunker at an abandoned Nike missile base in the Santa Monica Mountains, said Fire Capt. Virgil Chance.

While dog food is occasionally donated to animal shelters, 109,000 pounds of dog food--with expired use dates--was donated to the hog farm at the Sheriff's Department's Peter Pitchess Honor Rancho.

"In this program, inmates are taught to care for the animals, which are subsequently butchered to provide a portion of the meat requirements of the jail system," Sheriff Sherman Block said in a memo advising the Board of Supervisors of the gift.

Donations come from a wide spectrum of groups and individuals--from such celebrities as Anthony Quinn--who donated more than 3,000 items, including books, scripts and a suit of armor to the county's Anthony Quinn Library--to the California Fig Advisory Board, which donated 300 packets of figs for a conference held by the County Commission for Women.

Community projects bring in other donations, such as a Jaws of Life given by a neighborhood group to its local fire station.

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