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Parks, Recreation Programs in Ventura Face Dim Future : Budget: The department overseeing such activities will probably be eliminated.

June 21, 1993|PEGGY Y. LEE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Parks and street trees in Ventura may look shabbier in a few months. Recreation programs almost certainly will be dropped or scaled back. Staffing at community centers will be reduced.

And that could be just the start of what looks like a bleak future for the city's parks and recreation programs, officials say.

On July 1, Ventura probably will not have a Parks and Recreation Department. To save money, the department is being eliminated and its duties divided between two other city departments.

The City Council will not make a final decision about park funding until it adopts its 1993-94 budget later this month, but the council approved the idea of dropping the department earlier this year.

"It's shortsighted," said Barbara Harison, director of the Parks and Recreation Department, who is losing her job. "Things will suffer. You won't know what you have until you miss it."

City Manager John Baker agreed that residents will notice the cutbacks, and he sympathized with Harison. "Everybody thinks that what they do is important," Baker said.

But he said the city must cut spending, and he argued that the reorganization will provide services more efficiently.

Maintenance and operation of the parks will move to the jurisdiction of the Public Works Department, while recreation programs will come under the Community Services Department.

The Parks and Recreation Department operates 22 community parks, two golf courses, two senior centers and two community centers. Altogether, it maintains 29,000 street trees and more than 28 miles of open spaces. It had an $8-million budget last year, including $3 million in fees paid by people who use department programs.

In recent months, during the first two rounds of tentative layoffs, the 95-member department was cut deeper than any other. Its $5-million budget from the General Fund was slashed by $1.3 million, mostly in staffing funds. A total of 20 positions are proposed for elimination, including those held by Harison, the city arborist, park operations manager and five recreation coordinators.

Some residents are upset about the dismemberment of the parks department.

The decision "hits all ages, from very small children to very old people," said Ruth Carlson, chairwoman of the local chapter of the American Assn. of Retired Persons. "They have beautiful parks around here, and now they're going to be part of the streets department. All you have to do is walk around, and you know they don't take very good care of their streets. The parks are going to suffer."

Under proposed budget cuts, trees will be pruned less, grass will be fertilized less and irrigation systems will be left unrepaired for longer periods. Cuts will eliminate the Outdoor Adventure Program, which organizes hikes and campouts, and special historical events such as Old Adobe Days will be dropped.

"There's going to be a lot less personal attention," said Jerry Revard, the city arborist who oversees maintenance of all city-owned trees.

Gerry Stone, who has participated in many Outdoor Adventure Programs with his wife, said, "We're very disappointed. We feel like we would be deprived."

Donna Kacerek, president of the Buenaventura Swim Club, said she is upset over the reorganization because her club has been working with the department for years to build a public pool at Ventura College. Some money has been set aside for the project but more funds are needed.

"Who is going to be our advocate?" Kacerek said. "How can it not be diluted when it's divided up? It's really going to be a disservice."

Harison predicts the cutbacks and reorganization will substantially affect service to residents.

"People will be working with less supervision, so there's going to be more mistakes," Harison said. "The workloads are going to increase, people are going to be under more stress."

But a member of the city's Parks and Recreation Commission said some programs must take a back seat to public safety. "Parks and recreation have a difficult time saying they're essential services," Commissioner Steve Tobias said.

Ron Calkins, director of public works, said some of the cuts would have occurred even if a Parks and Recreation Department remained in existence. He pointed out that some consolidations--such as using the same pesticide crews for streets and parks--should have been done long ago.

"Parks will be given high priority because parks are very important to this community," Calkins said.

Recreation programs will also continue to get attention, city manager Baker said. But the Outdoor Adventure Program, which pays for itself, is targeted for elimination because it is not considered popular enough, he said. City officials said more than 700 people signed up for the Outdoor Adventure Program during the last year. Many were repeat customers, however.

The department has won statewide awards for its parks and recreation programs, and offers everything from handwriting analysis seminars to mime workshops. Many of the recreation programs are self-supporting, and those are not expected to change substantially.

Under Harison's leadership the past six years, the department created a popular, two-acre community garden, sponsored the first wheelchair tennis tournament in the county and is renovating Ventura Pier. Last year, a record 600 volunteers donated money and work to the department.

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