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2 More Casualties of County's Budget Wars : Recreation: Saying it can no longer afford them, officials are taking the unprecedented step of transferring 10 parks to local cities and the state.

August 23, 1993|TRACEY KAPLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the first time, Los Angeles County plans to turn over to local cities and the state at least 10 parks worth millions of dollars because it can no longer afford to operate them.

The transfers mark a fundamental shift in the role of the county, which has been reduced to providing only the most essential public safety services. Once considered assets, parks have become a liability in the wake of the county's worst fiscal crisis, officials said.

Two parks have been transferred to the city of Los Angeles, which reluctantly assumed the financial burden of running them to prevent their closure. Another eight are scheduled to be transferred this fall to other cities--including Calabasas, Santa Clarita and Malibu--and to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a state agency ordinarily involved in the acquisition or preservation of rural parkland.

Tough as the transfers may be on cities, county officials say a $3.8-million cutback in this year's parks budget leaves them little choice: either transfer the parks or close them.

"We just don't have the financial resources to do it all anymore, and it's not going to get any better," said Henry Roman, assistant director of the county Department of Parks and Recreation. "We'll probably see more of these transfers."

Most park visitors probably will not notice the change in administration. Services may even improve in such areas as Malibu, where the city will offer more recreation classes and make it easier to get a permit to be married in a local park.

That might not be the case in Santa Clarita, where city officials have warned residents that they may have to help trim the grass and pick up trash at Bouquet Canyon Park when they take over the park this fall. The city has to stretch its $2-million parks budget to include Bouquet, so maintenance there and at Santa Clarita's nine other parks could decline.

But for some residents, that seems a reasonable price.

"I'll do whatever I have to to keep the park open," said Mary Vigiano, an executive secretary who lives near Bouquet. "My 4-year-old thinks it's his back yard."

The 10 transfers will save the county more than $1 million annually and reduce liability costs by an undetermined amount, said Tony Yakimowich, a budget official with the county parks department.

Although 130 parks will remain in county hands, the transfers are a clear sign that the county's mission is changing, said Peter Whittingham, parks deputy to Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who represents parts of the San Fernando, Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys.

The county is getting out of the business of running smaller community parks and concentrating on larger, regional ones, he said.

Any new parkland acquired by the county with funds from a ballot measure approved by voters last year will either be open space that does not require much upkeep or land that volunteer groups or nonprofit agencies agree to maintain, said Jim Park, head planner for the county parks department.

"It's a gut-wrenching decision for us to give up these parks, but our customers don't care as long as they stay open," said county parks Director Rodney Cooper.

Los Angeles is not the only county to slash its parks budget after the June state budget accord that shifted $2.6 billion in property tax revenue from local governments, mostly counties, to finance public schools.

Riverside County has closed one of its 35 parks, reduced hours at others and raised parking fees. It is negotiating with the city of Perris for the latter to take over a 600-acre county park.

"Parks are lower on the list than health care, law enforcement and other services counties are obligated to provide," said Robert Fisher, director of Orange County's parks department, which tried to transfer two of its parks this summer but was turned down by the cities of Placentia and Lake Forest.

Some cities may be are in a better position to take on the parks not only because they fared better under the state budget than the counties did, but also because they have other means of raising funds, including utilities and business taxes.

Bell Gardens has a hefty tax base because of the Bicycle Club card casino, so it can afford to shoulder the financial burden. The city has paid the county more than $60,000 to keep the John Anson Ford Park open this summer and is negotiating with the county to take control of the park.

Others have politely, but emphatically, declined, county officials said.

"We're stretched to the limit as it is," said Carla Agar, spokeswoman for the state Department of Parks and Recreation, which turned down a request from the county to take over two state-owned parks long operated by the county--Pan Pacific Regional Park in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles and Malibu Bluffs Community Regional Park. "Our mission is to protect areas of statewide significance, not local parks."

Some cash-poor cities are following the county's lead, looking for others to share the cost of public parks.

"We're talking to La Canada Flintridge about sharing the costs" of operating Oak Grove Community Park, a city-owned park that the county had long operated, said Pasadena City Manager Philip Hawkey. But Pasadena refused to take over Eaton Canyon, a 183-acre county park with a nature center on the outskirts of the city.

"We have our own budget problems," Hawkey said.

The county's ability to operate its parks is likely to worsen in coming years, officials said. This summer, officials warned that they may have to close 23 parks, a move they avoided in part by negotiating the transfers.

"A lot of people forget there is a real expense to operating parks. They think it's just open space," said Yakimowich, the county budget official. "But we have to pay for water, lights, ground maintenance, rubbish pickup, irrigation, hazards like gopher holes, landscaping and vandalism cleanup. And all that doesn't come free."

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