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Private donors widen scope of Summer Night Lights in Los Angeles

Private entities contribute $3.1 million to expand the city's program, which aims to decrease gang-related crime by keeping park lights on and providing meals and activities for the communities' residents.

June 25, 2011|By Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times

At a time when other public services are being scaled back because of tight budgets, Los Angeles is expanding its Summer Night Lights program, which keeps parks in gang-plagued communities open late during the crime-heavy summer months.

The lights will stay on until midnight, four days a week, at 32 sites across the city, officials announced Friday. That's eight more locations than last year.

City residents can thank private donors for the expansion: Half of the $6.2-million price tag will be paid by philanthropic foundations and corporations, including Wal-Mart, Walt Disney Co. and AT&T Inc.

As budget-crunched cities around the country debate what constitutes "core services" — and, in the meantime, slash programs deemed nonessential — more and more officials are turning to public-private partnerships to pick up the slack.

Two years ago, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa created a city agency to seek funding from outside sources. The Office of Strategic Partnership, one of the first of its kind in the nation, has helped forge partnerships with private entities for an array of projects, including Summer Night Lights and the bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly event CicLAvia.

Philanthropists and corporations have long played a role in shaping major projects in cities. Downtown L.A.'s Disney Hall is a gleaming example.

But the budget hole left by the financial crisis means private entities may increasingly contribute to basic programs that might have been purely public ventures in the past.

"We need to be creative and we need to be collaborative," said Aileen Adams, the deputy mayor in charge of the Office of Strategic Partnership.

Summer Night Lights was launched in 2008 at eight locations in several of the city's most violent and impoverished neighborhoods. Gang intervention workers were assigned to each site — seven parks and one public housing project — to ensure ceasefires between rival factions.

The city provided meals, mentoring and activities, including skateboarding, art classes and sports leagues. The idea was "to keep every single person in the community engaged," said Deputy Mayor Guillermo Cespedes, who runs the Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development. "These neighborhoods will choose this over body bags any time."

From the beginning, about half of the program was funded by donations. Partly because of that, it has expanded every year since.

This year, as city lawmakers voted for a 10% reduction in homelessness prevention programs and a more than 6% cut in graffiti removal to help close L.A.'s $336-million budget shortfall, a group of executives from Disney and Sony Corp. teamed up with the Annenberg Foundation to raise money in Hollywood for Summer Night Lights, according to Adams.

The fundraisers were armed with impressive statistics: According to police data, serious gang-related crime fell 40% in the neighborhoods surrounding the program sites.

Their efforts worked. Private donations will account for about $3.1 million of this year's Summer Night Lights budget. An additional $3.1 million will come from federal grants and money from the city's general fund and Housing Authority.

A similar story lies behind CicLAvia, a new city event in which nearly eight miles of streets are closed off to automobiles and opened up to pedestrians and bicyclists.

The city contributed around 60% of the cost of the April 10 CicLAvia, which producer Aaron Paley said was about $325,000. The rest was paid for by private donors, including Herbalife International, Kaiser Permanente and Sprint.

Thanks to another strong season of fundraising, the next CicLAvia, on Oct. 9, may be expanded to include more miles, Paley said.

The increase in public-private partnerships for city programs comes as city officials weigh turning over some public facilities to private operators.

Earlier this year, the Los Angeles City Council considered outsourcing management of several arts facilities, including Hollywood's Barnsdall Art Park. It is currently considering whether to privatize the zoo.

Adams said the goal is not to have private entities replace government but to strengthen it.

She pointed to the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, which pays for adult literacy classes at public libraries, and the Los Angeles Police Foundation, which helped the Los Angeles Police Department catch up to speed on thousands of back-logged rape kits with a more than $1-million donation last year.

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