Los Angeles has always promoted its mountains, beaches and world-class weather, and while L.A. officials are justifiably proud of cultural jewels such as Griffith Park’s Greek Theater and Observatory, they have been slow to appreciate how important local parks are for taming a hostile urban environment.
Los Angeles parks failed to keep pace with explosive postwar growth, to the point that L.A. now ranks last among large U.S. cities in providing children access to a place to play within walking distance (considered a third of a mile). Some of our communities are greener than others, a disparity that steepens as the economic level of residents worsens.
It wasn’t always this way. The L.A. City Council created the Dept. of Parks in 1889, and established the first city playground department in the nation five years later. In 1925, the Council created the Dept. of Playgrounds, Recreation and Camps and proposed a charter allocating a fixed percent of property tax for parks that voters approved that year.
The charter’s provision was politically prophetic. During the Great Depression, the Recreation Commission and park supporters rebuffed repeated attempts by the City Council to divert funds to other projects. Four decades later, though, City and County parks and other public services began to crumble as revenue fell in the wake of Proposition 13. In the 1990s, local recreation received a $3.5-billion infusion from bonds that California voters approved.
Los Angeles voters reformed the City Charter in 1999 – including the provision for funding the Dept. of Recreation and Parks (RAP). During the last three years, however, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has done an end-run around the charter by treating RAP like Water and Power, the airport and other departments that generate revenue. The mayor has charged it $42 million for previously unbilled utilities, trash collection and vehicle maintenance, resulting in a 35% cut in the operating budget and a loss of 500 employees.
A coalition of park supporters and civic leaders is advocating a $39 yearly parcel tax estimated to generate $30 million a year for public recreation. Recent polling indicates that voters support the proposal, one of four tax measures the City Council has prepared for the March 2013 ballot to close anticipated gaps in the 2013-14 budget. Council President Herb Wesson, however, has indicated that he prefers to place only one initiative – a half-cent sales tax estimated to raise about $220 million a year – before the voters.
Denying voters a chance to rescue parks would be a mistake. Political leaders may buy into the argument that police, fire, medical and utility services are essential, while other government services are discretionary. The public, however, sees parks, schools and libraries as the bedrocks of livable, healthy neighborhoods – especially during bad times.