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LA mayor's race: What about the parks? (MAP)

This pool at the Expo Center at Exposition Park is operated year-round by Los Angeles city Recreation and Parks Department.
This pool at the Expo Center at Exposition Park is operated year-round by Los Angeles city Recreation and Parks Department.
Sharon McNary/KPCC
This pool at the Expo Center at Exposition Park is operated year-round by Los Angeles city Recreation and Parks Department.
Robert Garcia is president of The City Project, a parks advocacy nonprofit group. He sits in Vista Hermosa Nature Park on a bench overlooking Downtown Los Angeles.
Sharon McNary/KPCC

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Los Angeles Mayor race 2013Los Angeles mayoral candidates talk about improving quality of life, and for many residents that translates into access to parks and recreation programs. But today's parks system is financially stressed.

It's a story of closed pools, locked gates, unlit fields,  canceled or diminished recreation programs and barely-staffed playgrounds.

It's noon on a weekday and Jackie Robinson Stadium at the at the Rancho Cienega Sports Complex in Baldwin Hills is locked but a few locals have found their way in through a back service gate.

Pedro Ochoa is power-walking around the track, perspiring under a heavy sweatshirt, five-pound weights  on each wrist.  He comes here most days to burn calories as he rehabs a knee injury sustained at his warehouse job.

But he won't come at night.

"Now it's a lot improved, but I think it needs some police or somebody because at night a lot of things happen," Ochoa said.

Ochoa likes some of the recent changes in the park, like the replacement of grass with artificial turn on the soccer fields. He brings his son to play there.

Ochoa is a permanent resident, so he can't vote in the upcoming mayoral election, but his wife and adult children are citizens. Ochoa wants the next mayor to improve security in the parks.

Across the field, Rosalyn Clark coaches daughter Breanna for an upcoming college track meet.

"C'mon, sprint — it's a sprint, it's a sprint," Clark calls out, blasting her whistle. "All the way until you hear my whistle, jog it, slow it down!"

Clark raised her two kids near this park and neighboring Dorsey High where Breanna was a track champion.

"We have played baseball at this park, basketball, soccer, and so we trained at this park every day," she said. But in recent years, she's seen programs, services, park hours and employees disappear.

"I've known staff members that worked at this park, and the hours cut down and cut down until they weren't working here anymore and had to find other jobs," she said.

Citywide, one-third of the full-time staff and half of the part-timers have lost their parks department jobs in the past two years, forcing many fields and other areas to close. This very track is supposed to be closed at mid-day, as are the soccer field, tennis court and preschooler's play yard.

"It's a great park, people can walk to it and it's safe," Clark said. "So its unfortunate that people can't utilize it because we don't have the staff and we have all the cutbacks."

Clark isn't  sure who will get her vote in the mayor's race, but she knows what she wants from the city's next leader.

"I want to see the mayor open the parks back up, get the staffing we need and open these facilities back up to where the kids can use them and not just have them locked down," Clark said.

On the other side of the complex, next to the Expo Line train tracks, a sign on the skateboard park says it closes at dusk. Timothy James says the skatepark was poorly planned.

"They didn't finish it," James said. "At nighttime, we have no lights, it's dark, people get hurt."

James is 19 and lives across the street, so this park is  a second home to him. He used to swim in the indoor pool a lot. That pool, built in 1962, is supposed to be open year-round, but it's closed, awaiting renovations. Three other year-round pools in the city may shift to summer-use only this year, another casualty of budget cuts.

Vandalism is also a problem here. A 20-by 20-foot section of the soccer field turf at Rancho Cienega was recently torn off the field. On most days, this 28-acre park is staffed by two employees, one who mostly stays in an office to answer the phones, the other touring the grounds hourly.

L.A.'s parks department collects a thin slice of city property taxes and it charges for many programs, although at a discount. For years, the department used to put all of its money into salaries, programs, and maintenance. But that changed five years ago.  The city — trying to pull out of a financial tailspin — started charging the parks department for utilities and other services that it used to provide at no cost.

So today, one-third of the department's $194 million budget goes to pay for city services and employee benefits.  

"That is really, really outrageous," said Regina Adams, executive officer of the city Recreation and Parks Department. "And for us to be able to bear that burden, it's not sustainable."

Prepping the Parks Commission in advance of a city council budget hearing last week, Adams told commissioners the department is giving up too much to help balance the city budget.

Without a change in city budget policy or an increase in parcel taxes to fund parks, things will just get worse, commissioners said at a recent meeting. They will continue to cut programs, layoff staff and increase fees to users.  

Parks Commission President Barry Sanders said, "The low-hanging fruit, the greater efficiencies, the tightening up, that was done three and four years ago. We're into bone now and we don't want to be and we shouldn't be."

Some of those cuts, Sanders said, included ending low-cost full-day licensed child care at 24 parks, a move that saved $9 million dollars and sent 900 families in search of an affordable replacement. Licensed child care remains at only two city parks.

Other examples of cuts: parks restrooms get only a single daily cleaning. Groundskeepers once assigned to one park now have several to maintain. Team sports leagues that used to be at every park are now offered at far fewer facilities.

And although the solution is a political one, it's not been a point of contention in the mayor's race, commission president Sanders said.

"This has not become an issue between the candidates," he said. "But whoever is elected mayor will have to face immediately the question of additional funding sources for the parks."

Pressing that political question is Robert Garcia of The City Project, a nonprofit parks advocacy group. Speaking about the mayor's race at Vista Hermosa Nature Park near Downtown L.A., Garcia said the candidates have both pledged to support The City Project's goals. Those include creating more park space in L.A., revising funding formulas to improve parks in every neighborhood and equalizing residents' access.

"So that's good news," Garcia said. "The bad news is that politicians make promises all the time and then don't keep them."

The City Project cannot endorse a candidate in the mayor's race, but it does evaluate their records. Garcia said Councilman Eric Garcetti claims to have created more new parks in his district than any other council member. A spokeswoman for the Recreation and Parks Department said that could not be verified because they don't keep such information by district.

Garcia said he was disappointed with Greuel as controller because she did only one audit of parks, whereas her predecessor did numerous audits.

"It’s still hard to distinguish the two candidates because neither one has done much," Garcia said.

Vista Hermosa Nature Park is everything most L.A. city parks are not.

The city parks department only cleans the restrooms and maintains the artificial turf soccer field here. The rest of this unusually lavish park — the landscaped paths, picnic tables, the artsy metal gates, burbling stream, manicured lawns — was  installed and is maintained with funds from grants, ballot measures, private money and conservation agencies.

It's an example, Garcia says, of what could happen elsewhere in L.A, elects a mayor who is dedicated to improving city parks.