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Paying (More) to Play

November 15, 2003

"We get crazy here" when winter basketball gears up at the Pan Pacific Recreation Center, says Serena Fiss with a laugh. With weekly practices and games for up to 550 children, the park director says, balls are bouncing in the park's two gyms nightly until 9 p.m. The park is just as crowded in summer, drawing 3,000 children and adults most weekends.

All this activity means that Pan Pacific's gym floor needs a regular mopping, the park's 10 bathrooms need restocking and its 33 acres of lawn, picnic areas and play equipment need periodic maintenance and repair. Yet Pan Pacific, near the dense Fairfax neighborhood, is already short one caretaker and a recreation coordinator.

In the coming fiscal year the city faces an estimated $180-million shortfall and has ordered city agencies to help close that gap. The Department of Recreation, for example, must send an extra $4.5 million to the city general fund, on top of the $22 million it contributes annually from tennis court and picnic table reservations and golf fees.

That's why parks have upped their fees in recent months. A round of golf at the Cheviot Hills course went up $1, to $27 per person. Reserved picnic tables at Pan Pacific accommodating 75 people rent for $60, up from $55. A swim at the El Sereno park pool or any city pools rose a quarter, to $1.50.

These minuscule increases are the first across-the-board hikes in 10 years. Other special charges are heftier. High school cross-country leagues must now pay a $100 fee to hold their meets in parks. Community groups will have to put up $750 to stage a fair, plus charges for each booth, utility hookup fees and a $500 cleaning deposit. These fees have prompted some sports league commissioners and community group presidents to cry foul. Aren't our taxes supposed to cover the park department's expenses, they ask?

Good question. The city's fearful politicians will do anything to avoid raising voter ire by recommending a tax hike. They need more money for the city, but they don't want to face head-on the problems associated with a region that is trying to squeeze more and more people in the same amount of space. So, the city instead hikes "user fees."

The city's acute shortage of open space has made the park budget crunch especially visible. A department hiring freeze means one of every four maintenance positions is vacant, leaving just 400 gardener-caretakers to mow the laws, clean the bathrooms and empty the trash at 385 parks, stretching over 16,000 acres.

Higher park fees are not welcome. But the increased costs are largely being borne by the people who use the park most intensely -- the soccer players, the people who want to reserve park space for a private birthday party. The stroll in the park and the family picnics remain free -- for now.

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