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Cultural, Environmental Agencies May Face Elimination

City officials consider scrapping programs that support the arts, pollution-reduction.

March 09, 2004|Mike Boehm and Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writers

Faced with a daunting budget gap, city officials are considering eliminating Los Angeles' Cultural Affairs and Environmental Affairs departments, officials in those departments said Monday.

The Cultural Affairs Department grants about $3 million each year to the arts, offers neighborhood classes for adults and children, oversees a city-owned gallery and theaters, and is in charge of the landmark Watts Towers.

The Environmental Affairs Department provides environmental advice to city departments and coordinates programs that range from tree planting to reducing pollution to purchasing alternative-fuel vehicles for the city.

Some of those services would be absorbed by other departments, but others could be eliminated, officials in the departments said they were told last week during a briefing with Mayor James K. Hahn's budget team.

Officials in the mayor's office said no such plans are firm, although some cuts will be necessary because the city must shave $250 million off next year's budget of about $5 billion.

Deputy Mayor Doane Liu characterized last week's meetings as "preliminary discussions that were in confidence, of options the mayor has yet to consider." The mayor has until April 20 to finalize his budget for next year and submit it to the City Council.

Hahn, who is in Washington this week meeting with members of Congress, also stressed that no decisions have been made.

"There are a lot of things under consideration," he said.

But the assurances did not allay officials' fears that their departments are on the chopping block.

"For us, it is just unimaginable not to have an Environmental Affairs Department in the city," said Darlene Fields, the department's spokeswoman. The agency, which was created in 1990 and this year has a budget of about $3 million, has partnered with community groups to educate the public about asthma, worked to reduce bacterial contamination at Cabrillo Beach and managed tree planting throughout the city.

In the Cultural Affairs Department, which has an annual budget of about $12 million, general manager Margie J. Reese said, "What a shame it would be for this city to ... send a message to the world that the arts in Los Angeles have had to take this kind of blow."

Reese said that mayoral staffers met with her Thursday at City Hall and outlined a rough plan in which some of the work now done by Cultural Affairs would be parceled to two other departments: Recreation and Parks, and Planning. She said it appears that "the lion's share" of the grants program would be lost. Under that program, the city gives cash awards to nearly 200 organizations and individual artists who prevail in a competitive peer-review process.

Beneficiaries include prominent institutions such as Los Angeles Opera, Center Theatre Group and the Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as grass-roots programs aimed at bringing arts programming to poor neighborhoods, such as the skid row theater troupe the Los Angeles Poverty Department.

Robert Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group that represents local government arts agencies nationwide, predicted that if L.A. eliminated its arts agency, "it would be not only a major embarrassment but a very bad policy decision, which will be seen as such by cities all across the country. Besides the money," a city agency that makes arts grants "is a symbol that a great city thinks enough of itself to invest in beauty and learning and culture."

Government arts grants programs are especially important, Lynch said, because they serve as a "seal of approval" that can help groups attract much bigger amounts from corporations, private foundations and individual donors.

Mayor Tom Bradley and the City Council created the Cultural Affairs Department in 1980 to establish a central agency to help fund the arts and strengthen L.A.'s nonprofit cultural institutions. Eliminating the department, which currently is allotted 93.5 staff positions, would deprive the city of a "central hub" for culture, said Leslie Thomas, its assistant general manager. "You lose a point of reference. You lose that place where you can call and find out what is happening with regards to art and culture in our city."

Arts advocates already are smarting from a drubbing they took in Sacramento last summer and vow increased activism to prevent further losses. Funding for the California Arts Council plummeted from $21.1 million to $3.1 million, dropping California to last place nationally in per capita state funding of the arts and virtually doing away with arts grants on the state level.

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