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The problem with parks: city budget shortfall is cutting PARK SERVICES TO THE QUICK

Battered by political scandal and the pension funding crisis, city departments have all taken major budget hits in recent years.

Funding restrictions in this new era of austerity have translated into deep staff cuts, reduced hours and public services, and the need for users of those services to find alternative ways of paying costs, even for some of the most basic services.

Nowhere is the city’s funding pinch more self-evident than with its Parks and Recreation Department.

Eileen Turk, a former city Parks and Recreation manager covering La Jolla and Pacific Beach, is now employed with the city of Oceanside’s Parks Department. She lamented the realities of doing business in lean times, which persuaded her to move on after more than 10 years with San Diego.

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“In the old days, just a few years ago, rec centers were open 72 hours, seven days a week,” said Turk. “Last summer, when things became dire, that number went down to 48 hours a week. The smaller centers are now down to 40.”

Turk said her department’s budget was cut to an unworkable level.

“This past year, I had to get permission to buy toilet paper and Band-aids, the most basic necessities. Before they were cutting into muscle, now they’re getting down to bone.”

Parks and Rec Director Ted Medina said that since 1997, the city has lost 188 park staff positions, about $14 million worth of budget cuts.

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“Those cuts have spread out through the entire department,” he said. “All our general fund programs have been impacted negatively.”

There is uncertainty about levels of future financing for parks, as the city’s annual budgetary cycle starting July 1 will be controlled by Mayor Jerry Sanders in the new strong-mayor form of government. For the first time, Mayor Sanders, not the City Council, will propose 2006’s city budget on April 17.

Medina is not optimistic the mayor’s proposed budget for parks will be an improvement over recent years.

“I think we’re going to have very austere times for the forseeable future,” he said. “We will be issued a budget that will reflect a very smart utilization of whatever financial resources we have, with very tight controls and monitoring.”

John Hudkins is the manager of the city’s 12.3 miles of shoreline parks and beaches, including 65 view areas and coastal access points. He managed shoreline parks for five years from 1992 to 1997. He was asked to return to his former role in 2002 and found times had changed radically.

“I was looking forward to a lot of proactive management with our coastline,” said Hudkins, “and it has just really been a challenge, with the amount of budget money, to keep things status quo, let alone doing any enhancing to our coastline.”

Maintaining San Diego beaches is a tall order, given that upwards of 20 million people are estimated to visit them each year.

“On a warm spring weekend, it’s estimated we have 300,000 to 400,000 people out there on the coastline,” Hudkins said. “Compare that to the 60,000 sell-out at a Chargers game or a 40,000 sell-out at Petco Park.”

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In her 13 years as director at La Jolla Rec Center, Dianne Brittingham said these are the toughtest fiscal times she’s ever witnessed.

“These are the leanest years,” she said. “I don’t have an assistant, and only a few rec leaders. We were only open 40 hours.”

Thanks to La Jolla Parks and Rec Inc., La Jolla Rec Center’s governing board that raises funds from foundations, businesses and private individuals to support the center and its many recreational activities, the center has been able to buy hours from the city to remain open longer.

“Because our board agreed to pay almost $30,000 to the city of San Diego, we can stay open an additional 15 hours,” Brittingham said. “Without those additional 15 hours, we’d have to open at noon instead of 9 a.m. Kids and seniors are here mainly in the morning.”

With the budget crunch and the city no longer able to support many basic services, it’s fallen upon park user groups to fill the funding void. La Jolla Youth Soccer League and La Jolla Youth Baseball must now split the cost of maintaining the La Jolla fields where games are played.

“La Jolla Soccer spends $70,000 on community fields, like Allen Field, every year,” said Mary Wilson, the group’s executive director. “We now have a water bill from the city that is enormous that we never had to pay before.”

La Jolla Youth Baseball paid more than $50,000 last year for field maintenance.

“We’re trying to stay within that level for 2006,” said Art Johnson. “Through our (team) sponsorship program, we should be able to do that. But without our sponsors, it would be very challenging or us to maintain the fields to the level they need to be so kids can enjoy a quality experience.”

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To offset landscaping and water costs, fees have increased for kids playing ball.

“Our registration fees have increased over the last four or five years,” he said.

Wilson said her soccer league serves about 1,700 kids. She added it’s challenging to make financial ends meet and fulfill their primary mission of serving youth at the same time.

“If we didn’t do it,” she said, “I think kids flat out wouldn’t have a field to play on, or it would be brown or dead. It would be nice to have help from the city, but I don’t see that happening.”

Turk said essential maintenance will get done, but it will take a lot longer to do. That could present a safety threat to park users.

“Resurfacing La Jolla Rec Center basketball court is routine maintenance that used to be done by the city every three years,” she said. “Every three to five years it has to be repainted and restriped. It’s a safety consideration, not just cosmetic, because it provides a rough texture so nobody slips on the outdoor basketball court.”

The playground equipment is also in need of tending.

“I’m not saying it’s not getting done,” she said. “It’s not getting done as often as it should. With parks, one of our number one concerns is safety. We absolutely need to do our utmost to keep things as safe as possible.”

Hudkins said budget cuts have had a number of unfortunate consequences.

“It takes longer to replace staff positions than it once did,” he said. “There are time lags now in getting basic things like trashcan liners and paint. There has been a decreased frequency in the cleaning of the beaches.”

Despite extremely tight fiscal times, city parks staff just keeps keeping on.

“Morale is amazing,” said Hudkins. “Our staff has pride in what they do.”

For more information about city parks, call (619) 235-5914.