A Nervous 'Rec'
"The will is there," Barry Sanders insists. The will among the 15 members of the reluctant Los Angeles City Council to finally resolve the city's budget crisis, he means.And the city's Department of Recreation and Parks —for which Sanders, a well-known retired attorney, serves as the mayor's appointed parks commission president — is widely expected to take profound hits.
"The mayor and council both have said they have to do it," Sanders says. "I think they are right. The threat to downgrade our [city bond rating] has focused our attention on the threat to the city if we don't do it. The will is there — and the money is not there."
When the City Council actually votes to approve a budget sometime late this month — or at least before July 1, when the new fiscal year begins — Rec and Parks will certainly change.
The scale of the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks is so vast that it could be considered a city within a city. It manages more than 15,000 acres — an area slightly larger than the city of Pasadena.
L.A.'s public parklands include some top-notch civic jewels, like the Griffith Observatory and the Greek Theatre in Griffith Park, and diamonds in the rough, like bicycle rentals at Lake Balboa, vast wetlands and bird flyways off the 405 in the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area, and batting cages in Sherman Oaks.
If you see a telescope on a pier or a bluff, Rec and Parks likely operates it. The department oversees city golf courses and tennis courts and swimming pools, and two equestrian centers.
Many of these facilities charge user fees, which is why the Rec and Parks Department is considered "semiproprietary."
It's not operating at the moneymaking level of city departments that pay their own way through extensive public fees and charges, like the Department of Water and Power. But it's far more self-sufficient than city departments and city entities that eat money and bring in little to none, like LAPD or the vast apparatus of personal staffers who work for the 15 council members and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
While the fees help to pay operations at city golf courses and tennis courts, they don't make up for Rec and Park's large labor costs, which account for 86 percent of its expenditures.
In the city's unfolding budget disaster, those labor costs have made Rec and Parks a target-rich environment for City Hall's chief fiscal adviser, Miguel Santana, and the L.A. City Council — which has yet to look at seriously slashing its own extensive staffing and labor costs.
Inside Rec and Parks, top officials say, the department is already operating with close to a skeletal staff. Especially thin are the ranks of its most visible, iconic figures — park rangers. Yet the rangers' ranks are bound to grow even thinner.
"We have 22 rangers for the entire city," says Department of Recreation and Parks General Manager Jon Kirk Mukri, who is seen by many in fractious City Hall as one of the few department chiefs who knows his job and doesn't blow smoke.
Moreover, one-quarter of his department's top 20 jobs are empty, Mukri says, and thanks to an early retirement buyout offer last year approved by the City Council and Villaraigosa to save money, many of Mukri's second-tier managers grabbed the cash and retired.
"Because of ERIP, [the city's Early Retirement Incentive Program], we have a 60 percent vacancy rate in second-tier management," Mukri says.
He supported the controversial early retirement plan as "a humane way to have people roll off civil service," but many among the more than 2,400 city employees who took the deal were top-tier and second-tier managers whose positions have not been filled.
That leaves Rec and Parks facing real trouble as the City Council eyes cuts to the department to make up a whopping 10 percent of the city's $200 million deficit. Owing to seniority, layoffs are almost certain to hit the rangers, and some certified peace officers with valuable skills are likely to be laid off before the "interpretive" rangers with far fewer skills.
The real rangers are sworn peace officers trained at a police academy to protect park users, deal with emergencies, such as rock slides and heart attacks and suppress park crimes like arson and muggings.
But before Mukri took over in 2004, the department agreed to hire "interpretive" rangers capable only of such tasks as "nature programming.'" Rec and Parks has long had interpretive workers as well as peace officers, but several years ago a city union won a demand to award the park's interpretive employees with the "ranger" status equivalent to peace officers. Because hiring dates determine seniority, in many cases, interpretive workers now outrank the rangers trained with critical peace officer skills.
That has Bernadette Soter, who in 2002 founded the parks committee within the Greater Griffith Park Neighborhood Council, worried about the City Council's priorities.
"Park rangers are a different animal," Soter says. "They're multitaskers. They're trained firefighters. They're great at conflict resolution, which happens in a park. The community organized in 2004 to keep the rangers, and the community has been obliged to fight every year since for them."
Mukri expresses confidence in both kinds of rangers but now says, "Was it a bad decision [to create two kinds of rangers]? Probably. I'm going to have to resolve that issue going forward."
A take-charge type who doesn't mince words, Mukri was hired by former Mayor James Hahn to head the city's Rec and Parks Department after running the city's General Services Department.
Although Mukri has been largely lauded, he has faced some thorny criticisms, such as when Rec and Parks was blamed for failing to prevent the bewildering, sudden death of the city's fabled, perennial lotus garden, which grew in the waters of Echo Park Lake and at one time was North America's largest lotus bed.
The lotus bed suddenly died in 2008, and Rec and Parks pledged to replace it. But now, that promise can't be fulfilled until a bigger project to refurbish the lake is undertaken. Voters approved bond money for parks, but the Echo Park refurbishing is moving slowly as the bond money becomes available.
In essence, the long-unresolved city budget crunch is creating a mismatch between infrastructure projects funded by voters, for which bond money is available, and the City Council's targeting of jobs and workers who would oversee or staff those infrastructure projects.
In the northeast San Fernando Valley, for example, voters approved the money for a new ranger station — way back in 1996 — but the City Council now plans to slash the rangers who might work there.
The long-awaited ranger station would serve the mostly low-income families who flock to Hansen Dam recreation areas in Sylmar. The construction project has been slowly snaking through the city's permitting process.
The money will come from Proposition K, passed by voters 14 years ago, which generates $25 million a year through 2026 for park infrastructure and acquisition.
Now, the Hansen Dam Ranger Station, which could be ready as early as next year, may not have the bodies needed — rangers — to open.
To some, there's a disconnect here. Mayor Villaraigosa, La Opinión newspaper recently reported, employs 173 personal staffers, including 12 deputy mayors, far more than Hahn or Richard Riordan ever did. The Los Angeles City Council, the Weekly has reported, employs a vast body of 320 personal staffers.
No serious cuts are being contemplated in these large political staffs, yet elected leaders have begun to press Mukri not only to cut rangers but also to look into possible privatization of public park facilities.
Mukri is trying to hold onto long-term goals. Nobody knows if he will succeed. Says Mukri: "Should we still be thinking in terms of new structures, new parkland, new ways to recreate? Absolutely."
In this budget crisis, The mayor and City Council haven't trimmed their huge personal staffs of 173 and 320, respectively.
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