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Parks department should look before it cuts

In this time of need, recreation staffers may be more urgently needed than administrators.

February 21, 2010|Steve Lopez
  • As daylight fades, visitors play basketball at the recreation center at Mar Vista Park, among those that may face layoffs and cutbacks.
As daylight fades, visitors play basketball at the recreation center at… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

Connie Sommer has a thing for her neighborhood park. She loves the variety of sports programs and classes and the way the park ties her three children to the greater community. She sees the pleasant tree-shaded acres as a slice of multicultural Los Angeles at its best.

But the splendor in the park is threatened by a wild, rampaging beast.

In Los Angeles and across the state, budget cuts are coming at every level of public service, and more employees are being thrown out of work. I get lots of e-mails like the one from Sommer, who said Mar Vista Park is about to take a hit.

"Would you please take up our cause and help us get heard," she pleaded, "before it's too late?"

It may already be too late. And not just for parks.

As I was on my way to meet Sommer, my wife called me to say our daughter's school year will be shortened by a week to save money.

Terrific.

And based on what I learned in Mar Vista, we shouldn't count on sending her to the neighborhood rec center that week.

Sommer and two other parents, Pam Jackson and Tony Solomon, met me at Mar Vista Park on Thursday morning to make their case for preserving the programs there, which may be scaled back as the mayor and City Council threaten to eliminate 4,000 city jobs.

My hosts at Mar Vista said they understand that the situation is dire and that every pet program can't be protected. But they argue that the city will have bigger bills down the road if idle kids have nothing to keep them out of trouble. Their park could lose one or more of its few full-time positions as well as some part-time recreation staff.

"It's short-sighted," said Jackson, who resents that the people who use and support the park, and pay for many of the programs, have been left out of the budget-cutting discussion.

"My own business is down 80%," said Solomon, who's in commercial real estate and doesn't question Mayor Villaraigosa's need to pare the city budget. "But are there better suggestions as to where some of the cuts should be made?"

Good question. Unless they're all turning profits, do we need a dozen municipal golf facilities? And nothing against Brentwood or the Barrington Rec Center, but this might be a good time to consider dropping low-impact aerobics, bridge and dog classes, or maybe tripling the fees for them.

If they had a voice, the Mar Vista parents told me, they'd ask city officials to cut administrative recreation positions before the jobs of the on-site coordinators and directors. The latter are in contact with thousands of adults and children who participate in dozens of sports and arts programs.

I heard the same call later in the day at a meeting of the Alliance to Save L.A. Parks, which is led by Jack Foley, a Cal State Northridge professor emeritus of recreation. Foley fears that the city will lay off dozens of front-line employees, shut down some rec centers and turn the rest of the system into a "pay to play" department.

That would be disastrous, he said, because in dozens of neighborhoods, many families can't afford to pay. Foley calls rec leaders the "thin green line of community safety" and argues that firing them is "comparable to firing teachers and beat officers."

A recreation department employee who wouldn't let me use her name, fearing she'd be fired, said the cuts are coming just as demand for park and rec services is rising and summer approaches. If the mayor wants crime reduction, she said, he should consider that by whacking her department, the city would be creating a "devil's workshop."

To some extent, the threat of layoffs is a negotiating tool, with city officials trying to extract concessions including pay cuts from labor unions in return for job security. But there's a $485-million deficit projected over the next two years, and Clemente Arrizon, a rec coordinator at Montecito Heights Recreation Center, said that, like many other park employees, he has received notice that he may be laid off.

"All of my kids are at-risk kids, with 80% of them below the poverty line," said Arrizon, who added that his kids pester him to volunteer at the rec center so they're beyond the reach of the gangbangers.

"We're referees, we're counselors, we're stepfathers, we're brothers. We do it all," said Arrizon, who grew up in a tough Santa Ana neighborhood and knows how easy it is for a kid to get into trouble. He went to college, studied under Foley and got his degree.

Now, 18 years into a career that could soon end abruptly, he's applying at places like Home Depot.

The head of the Recreation and Parks Department, Jon Mukri, did not return my call. Jeff Carr, the mayor's chief of staff, said any cuts to recreation and parks are painful, but the city has to live within its means. There'll be more of an effort to recruit sponsors and build public-private partnerships, he said, to keep programs running.

I'm not suggesting there's much of a silver lining in any of this. But maybe, in the new and reduced California, people will get angry enough about the state's habitual dysfunction and political cowardice to demand reforms that would lead to less partisanship, more efficiency and steadier revenue streams.

In the meantime, there's a chance for an honest discussion about which public services we can no longer afford and which ones we can't afford to lose.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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