By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
At a time of gung-ho city spending — city employees are reaping 23 percent pay hikes, and the budget for Los Angeles has doubled over seven years to a whopping $6.8 billion — bureaucrats have found at least one way to save a buck.
They have torpedoed one of the few wholesome activities available to poorer urban families at Echo Park and MacArthur Park lakes — the popular and historic paddleboats. “Even during the Depression they were running the boats,” cries Isa-Kae Meksin, a retired teacher and Echo Park activist who once ferried her blind students out for fun on the lake. “If they could sustain this during the Depression, why can’t they now? You have no idea how upset the community is about this.”
Boating has added a Norman Rockwell touch to the lakes since before anyone even heard of Norman Rockwell. To many children of immigrant and working-class families, the two parks, within easy view of downtown skyscrapers, are the only places to discover what it’s like to sit in a craft that floats and bobs along the water. “Not having access to the ocean, it’s a chance to have that experience,” says Ludin Chavez, director of the nonprofit community center Collective Space near MacArthur Park. “It’s something different they’ll talk about.”
Ivonna Nanette, who lives two blocks from MacArthur Park, recalls the delight in the eyes of her daughter Noemi, who was 5 the first time she rode the paddleboats last year.
“Riding the boat and feeding the ducks at the same time, that was big for her,” Nanette says. “It’s brought families together to ride the boats. Bus number 20 goes to the beach in Santa Monica, but you don’t get to ride a boat in Santa Monica.”
That feel-good childhood magic apparently matters little to bean counters at City Hall, who shuttered operations just after Labor Day, leaving only pigeons and seagulls to board the pedal-powered craft now marooned at their docks next to locked boathouses. According to Kevin Regan, assistant general manager of the Department of Recreation and Parks, the boats are required to stay afloat entirely through user fees: $10 per hour, or $7 per half hour, for a boat that holds up to four passengers. Since those revenues are not enough to pay for maintenance and staff, including lifeguards on lakes barely deeper than wading pools, the boats end up draining money from other programs in the department’s budget — which is only $163 million, Regan says.
“That program has never broken even, or even come close to it,” he says. “The department’s intent is that we’re done. We’re not going to put the boats back in the water.”
Regan was initially evasive about paddleboat costs — suggesting at one point that a reporter file a Freedom of Information Act request over what is surely one of the most benign expenditures in the entire bureaucracy. He later explained that the parks department took control of the rentals from a concessionaire 20 years ago, and always wanted the boats to be self-supporting. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s bureaucrats, including General Manager Jon Kirk Mukri, decided to slash the program — all to save $95,000 at Echo Park and $43,000 at MacArthur Park.
OUTRAGED RESIDENTS, who have organized to try to save the boats, insist the money cannot be better spent than at two parks that were infested a dozen years ago with gangsters and drug users. MacArthur Park, in particular, because of its location in a teeming, blue-collar community crowded with illegal immigrants reluctant to deal with authorities, has been difficult to clean up. Homeless men still sleep under blankets while locals sit at concrete tables and play chess, talking in Spanish. Women and children now use the park too, in a precarious balance that neighborhood leaders are trying hard to maintain.
“Is the city, as a matter of priorities, going to support these predominantly Latino and working-class neighborhoods?” asks Cindy Bendat, an attorney and photographer who remembers riding the boats as a child. “When we Google these parks, do we want to find stories about crime and drugs, or do we want to protect something uniquely beautiful in Los Angeles?”
Ultimately, it’s up to Council Members Eric Garcetti, who represents the district that includes Echo Park, and Ed Reyes, who represents MacArthur. Because of L.A.’s highly unusual governance structure, which hands each of 15 elected council members a vast, city-size district of 260,000 people and allows each to rule like a demigod over key decisions on land development and city programs inside their district’s boundaries, nothing can happen without Reyes and Garcetti.
When it comes to big-ticket items, both Garcetti and Reyes have shown themselves able spenders of public loot: Both voted for phased-in 28 percent raises for employees of the Department of Water and Power shortly after the Daily News reported that DWP workers earn an average of $77,000 per year — with 13 percent of these public employees paid more than $100,000 annually.
Furious about the disclosures, the union representing DWP workers unsuccessfully took the Daily News to court several days ago to force them to remove employee names and salaries from the paper’s Web site — even as the DWP got initial approval for steep rate hikes for L.A. residents. The DWP raises are seen as prelude to phased hikes of about 23 percent for more than 20,000 other city workers — even as Villaraigosa admits to a massive spending deficit.