With 27 years in the State Parks Department, the new Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation, Russ Guiney, is no stranger to thorny parks problems like limited operating funds and diminishing open space. MIR is pleased to publish this interview with Mr. Guiney in which he dicusses the departments renovation efforts and the need for collaboration among the county, state and local parks departments in order to meet recreation and open-space needs in an era of limited resources.
Russ, you joined the LA County Parks and Recreation Department a little more than two years ago, after a long 27-year career with the state. How did they entice you down here, and what are your top priorities?
A few years ago I interviewed with then Director Tim Gallagher for the position of Chief Deputy Director. The things Tim talked about that he wanted to do in LA County sounded exciting. He talked about revitalizing the department and developing new facilities. Also, I had worked closely with people in the County Parks Department on projects when I was with California State Parks, so it wasn't totally unfamiliar territory. Two years later, Tim decided to retire. I threw my hat in the ring, and I was lucky enough to be selected by the board of supervisors in January.
What is at the top of your agenda as director?
At the top of our agenda is renovating our parks. We have 130 parks throughout the county, and most of these are older parks. A lot of our swimming pools were built over fifty years ago, and we have money from the county's Proposition A that is from 1992 and 1996. We also have funds from state bond acts: Proposition 12 in 2000 and Proposition 30 in 2002. We want to process those projects and get them moving. We have almost $80 million in the pipeline. Unfortunately, the backlog of needs for facilities has been estimated at $400 million. We are not there yet, but we are taking some big steps in that direction.
Nearly $10 billion in state bonds have approved in the last five years in addition to the county parks bonds that you mentioned. How can you meet the operational expenses that these capital projects will eventually generate?
That is a tough question, one that voters probably ask when they vote on these bonds. Our operating budget is around $104 million a year. Two-thirds of that is from the County General Fund. The remaining third comes from revenue from fees. The part of our budget we have direct control of is fees and charges. We try to make those fees reasonable -- and the board of supervisors has to approve them – so that our programs remain affordable and accessible. At the same time, the fees are an important part of the budget. Of course, we also try and get our fair share of general fund money. We think that the voters feel that park facilities are important and translate into safer neighborhoods and after-school programs for kids. According to a survey done in 2000, 81 percent of the voters felt these neighborhood parks and playgrounds were as important as other issues like taxes, pollution, and drug abuse.
In addition to revenue from fees and general fund money, we are always trying to operate more efficiently. For instance, right now, we are trying to improve our reservation system by putting it on the web. This will reduce the number of people required to take reservations and will make it more convenient for people. We also have a tremendous number of people who volunteer for the county and help us provide services We calculated that volunteers contributed about $500,000 in labor last year. The volunteers are very important and we want the community to feel ownership of their parks.
Russ, can you give our readers a sense of the conversation that takes place regarding finding the dollars to operate new facilities resulting from capital investment?
Most of our work is not creating new parks; it is renovating facilities that already exist. If we renovate an antiquated swimming pool and upgrade the heating system or somehow make it more efficient, we might be able to reduce utility costs. That is what a lot of the discussion is about. We also talk about facility design and how we can accommodate more people. We also look for partnerships. We entered into a cooperative agreement with a school in Antelope Valley that was building a gym next to one of our parks, and now people can use the gym after school. We always look for partnerships in order to minimize capital costs and operating costs.
That's interesting. We have done a number of articles on the promise and challenges of the kind of cooperation you are describing. While these strategies to leverage resources and create joint-use facilities hold promise, there are few incentives for collaboration built into the bond issues themselves. How can collaboration be encouraged?
You mention, correctly, that a lot of these bond acts are focused on their own goals and not so focused on collaboration. When you apply for competitive grants, you are given points if you are collaborating, and that makes your grant application more competitive. When the bond acts are written, perhaps more attention should be focused on making the dollars go further. Maybe priority could be given to projects with matching funds or partnerships.
Turning to supply and demand for a moment, do we have adequate park space to serve the predicted increase in population? Some estimates are that two cities the size of Chicago will be added to metropolitan Los Angeles by 2030.
No. The Los Angeles area - the City of Los Angeles in particular - doesn't have sufficient parklands. The recommended ratio is about 10 acres per 1000 people. I think that we are below 3 acres per 1000 people. It's difficult to say how we build for the future. So much of our area is already built up, and in most of the county the emphasis is on infill development. In the northern part of the county it is a little easier to ensure that enough parkland is being set aside because of ordinances that require major developments to set aside land. In the city center, the answers are harder. We are looking for areas like defunct factories or industrial land that can be purchased and converted, but it is going to be a tremendous challenge
A few months ago, we covered the governor's Performance Review Plan, which discussed ending funding for the Northern Hills Conservancy, among others. As someone who has been involved with the creation of conservancies, could you address their value and function in the state, regional and local agendas for recreation?
Conservancies tend to focus on a particular area of need. Baldwin Hills Conservancy focuses on the Baldwin Hills, and The San Gabriel Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy focuses on the corridor along the San Gabriel River. These areas are somewhat regional but more focused that the broad state system. The conservancies serve an important need by focusing resources on areas that are large but don't get quite enough attention from the state. Through a conservancy, it is possible to bring together the communities along the San Gabriel River and bring in some state money.
Let's turn to the Taylor Yards and the Cornfields. With this project, the State Parks Department is involved in urban Los Angeles and planning for multi-purpose needs. How are they doing? Are they working well with the County Parks Department?
I was just at Taylor Yard for the ground breaking, hosted by California State Parks. Director Ruth Coleman spoke and Mayor Hahn from the City of Los Angeles both spoke, and that is representative of the collaboration. I think the state parks system, had a little trouble adjusting at first, because they are usually focused on more rural areas - more nature parks, as opposed to ball fields. I think that Assemblymember Jackie Goldberg carried some legislation that provided for more involvement by the state parks system in active recreation settings, and that resulted in this collaborative effort with the City of Los Angeles. The state will have a portion of that park, and the city will have the more developed soccer field area. The design seems to blend the two uses well. I think it is a blueprint for our future.
The last question was really about the 88 city parks departments in the county and the respective responsibilities of those departments and the county parks department. What level of collaboration takes place between these city departments and your agency?
We serve the 1 million residents of the unincorporated County of Los Angeles. This includes a lot of areas near South Los Angeles and East Los Angeles that people tend to think are part of LA or nearby cities. In those areas we provide recreational services and community centers similar to what cities would provide.
If a city incorporates in an area where we have a park, we transfer the parkland to the new jurisdiction. As a result, in many of the cities, the core of their parks came from the county parks system. We do have some larger regional parks that are within some of the city limits. Those the county continues to operate because they serve a broader constituency.
In terms of collaborative efforts, three years ago we started the Parks Senate of Los Angeles County. We invited all of the 88 cities and other providers of parks and recreation services to meet at the County Arboretum, to discuss collaboration. One of the efforts that came out of this discussion was the Healthy Parks program. The program emphasized exercise programs in parks. This was in response to obesity issues that had been in the news. We did a joint press conference with the cities.
At the same time that we collaborate, we also try not to duplicate services. For instance, we wouldn't build a community center a half-mile from another center.
How is the Trust for Public Lands' Parks for People program likely to relate to your programs?
We are working with them to identify land in areas that don't have many parks. We are discussing the prospect of them purchasing some of this property and turning it over to us to be turned into a park. They're great partners; they really do contribute to our effort.
Whenever we're looking for a place to put a new park in an urban core we usually turn to them and say, "Got any ideas?"
In closing, Russ, are your working with the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy?
Yes. In conjunction with the conservancy, we purchased several parcels in the Santa Monica Mountains. Then we contracted with the Mountains Restoration Trust, to operate those lands. These are mainly wilderness parks that have trails, trailheads and some parking, but they don't have any intensive recreation. What we're doing complements what the Conservancy is doing. We're working right now on a major project, the Soka University sight, which is a key part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. It's been a goal of the National Park Service for a number of years to try to acquire that sight, and Soka University has entered into discussions with the Conservancy for that acquisition. The county is contributing to the project by is using some of its funds earmarked for park projects in the Santa Monica Mountains for some of the soft costs, like appraisals. I think we have a strong partnership going on this.