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Steve Soboroff: find creative ways to fund LA's parks

Kids play basketball on a court at the Martin Luther King park at Western Avenue and 39th Street in south Los Angeles.
Kids play basketball on a court at the Martin Luther King park at Western Avenue and 39th Street in south Los Angeles.
Newly Paul/KPCC

As Los Angeles prepares its next budget, Steve Soboroff, the former head of the city's Recreation and Parks Commission, says L.A. needs to start getting creative about finding money to revive the depleted parks budget.

Standing outside City Hall recently, Soboroff described how he’d just met with the city administrative officer to discuss the issue. Soboroff is lobbying for different funding approaches, such as building solar canopies over parking lots to provide power, and taking on commercial partners.

“Why not go to Nike, and say ‘hey, here’s our 40 parks that need the basketball courts redone, and if you want to put your 'swoosh' in the middle, god speed,’” the entrepreneur said. “To me that’s commercialization with taste.”

Soboroff also pointed out that private foundations can be a source of funds. 

With the city facing another deficit for  the fiscal year that starts July 1, the Recreation and Parks Department does not expect to see any of the money it's lost over the past five years restored.

Cuts to the department and its more than 400 parks have been dramatic. To address plummeting tax revenues caused by the recession, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the city council slashed Recreation and Parks by $40 million since 2008. That forced the department to get rid of a third of its full time and part time workforce. It now employs about 1,400 people.

“It’s been devastating,” said Soboroff, who spearheaded the building of the massive Playa Vista project near Marina Del Rey.  Last year, he co-founded a group called Parks Save.

Soboroff said he doesn’t want to pit police against parks, but it’s hard to ignore the city’s deteriorating recreation and parks system.

“Its not just sport programs that have been cut,” he said. “CPR classes, seniors programs, music program dancing programs.” These are programs that serve people who don’t have enough money to go elsewhere.

“I know how important the park system is to the underserved, and I care deeply about underserved people,” said Soboroff, who ran for mayor in 2001. “I also know that great park systems increase home values. They’re good for the economy.”

Soboroff, who was president of the Recreation and Parks Commission from 1995-2000, complained about reworked funding formulas for the department. The Department of Water and Power now charges Recreation and Parks for its use of water and power. 

City officials have said it’s a fairer way to divvy up limited resources, given that the department receives a share of property taxes. Under the charter, Recreation and Parks receives .0325% of the assessed value of properties in the city. Advocates are hoping as values slowly rise, so will the department’s budget.

Soboroff said restoring lost funding to Recreation and Parks is critical. Having a weakened parks system "makes L.A. a less livable city,” he said.