Mayor Robert Garcia and Ninth District Councilman Rex Richardson planting trees on Atlantic Avenue in July 2014. Photo by Jason Ruiz.
In a report issued Tuesday by the Long Beach City Auditor’s office, the state of the trees and parks in the city were found to be in dire need of maintenance and investment, as over one-fourth of the trees in the city are dead or considered in poor condition. The problem was partially attributed to a lack of human resources, due to an expansion of park space and static staffing levels.
The report, which was carried out between the 2013 and 2015 fiscal years, revealed six audit issues during the course of the office’s work. The city was found to have expanded park space without adequately raising staffing levels to maintain them, contracts paid out by the city were found to have included work that was not actually completed and irrigation failures helped lead to the deteriorating condition of parks and trees.
City Auditor Laura Doud said that no one problem was to blame for the lion’s share of blame in regard to the declining state of Long Beach parks, trees and medians. Instead, Doud said the drought, a shortage of workers to service the city’s expanding park acreage and an antiquated irrigation system were all equally important in creating the dire state of park upgrades and maintenance.
“What this audit pointed out was the funding for the maintenance has not kept up and as a result the state of the parks, and park trees will continue to decline if we don’t address this immediately,” Doud said.
The shortfall in maintenance was partially attributed to the city’s ambitious plans to expand park space in the city, but not providing an equal increase in coverage of people to properly take care of the new spaces. Since the last landscape contract was awarded in 2013 the city has added 16 parks, 11 medians and seven facilities, but did not increase maintenance funding.
Other issues outside the city’s control, like the drought and the corresponding executive order from Gov. Jerry Brown, helped speed the decline of park spaces and medians in the city. This led to deteriorating conditions in parks, including a valuable asset for the city trees.
Of the nearly 1,300 acres of irrigated parks and medians, only 54 percent comes from reclaimed water. With Brown’s most recent executive order last month that extended some provisions of the original conservation mandates, the water issue appears to be an issue the city will have to find a way to work around in the future.
In total, the audit found that the city would need to hire the equivalent of approximately 20 additional full-time equivalent positions to adequately maintain park spaces. It also called for an upgrade of irrigation systems. The additional workers were estimated to cost about $1 million annually, and the irrigation upgrade was estimated to be about $113 million.
Some of those costs could have been offset by money lost to unused equipment and services that were not performed by the maintenance company hired by the city but paid out by the city. The audit found that the department had mistakenly paid almost $81,000 for service that was not completed and purchased over $215,000 in “relatively new” vehicles that went unused for years, while depreciating in value.
What the report also revealed was a divide between the audit’s recommendations and the opinion of recently appointed Long Beach Director of Parks, Recreation and Marine (PRM) Marie Knight. In a letter addressed to City Manager Pat West earlier this month Knight said her management team agreed with the intent of the auditor’s recommendations but added the changes would be implemented where the money existed to enact them.
“As with all departments within the city organization, we have limited resources and cannot always provide the overall level of services or management desired,” Knight wrote. “Unfortunately, a number of the recommendations, while excellent for a department with full resources, must be weighed along with our funding and service challenges.”
The city’s recently passed Measures A and B increased the city’s sales tax over the next 10 years, a move that’s estimated to generate tens of millions of dollars intended to address public safety and infrastructure needs. In a statement released in connection with the audit being made public Tuesday, Knight addressed how some of that estimated $48 million in annual Measure A funds will end up benefiting the park system.
“Thankfully, Measure A will provide nearly $20 million in funding to address many of the critical issues raised in the audit, including tree trimming, facility repairs and modernize irrigation systems,” Knight said. “Increasing park space is one of the city’s proudest achievements of the last decade and we are committed to maintaining and improving these assets for future generations.”
Trees are a valuable asset for the city, as proven in a 2015 study, which found that the over 29,000 trees in the city are worth about $112 million. However, there exists a lack of maintenance, irrigation and old age, impacting the health of trees. This issue was highlighted by events yesterday afternoon, when the iconic Coral Trees at Bluff Park that provide shade for “Yoga on the Bluff” classes were severely pruned, due to a decline in the tree’s health and potential dangers presented by falling limbs.
Overall health of the trees, or lack thereof, was perhaps the most striking part of what Doud’s office uncovered during the two-year audit. In addition to finding 27 percent of the trees dead or in poor or critical condition, another 29 percent are considered to be in just fair condition. About 2,000 trees have been marked for removal by the city.
These issues could be better monitored or even prevented if the PRM department had a more proactive plan to assess the ongoing health of trees, instead of a reactive one that cuts them back or removes them completely, when found to be in failing condition.
Doud’s report points out that the overall health of trees can be improved by keeping a regular tree trimming schedule as well as help eliminate safety issues and build on the park’s aesthetics. It proposed the PRM undertake a five-year maintenance cycle for trees in the city, with an estimated cost around $433,000. The city’s current projected spending for the as-needed approach is $282,396, which presented a shortfall of over $151,000.
Of the over 30 recommendations posed by the audit, Knight’s department agreed to just over half. Doud said the rejection of the five-year tree maintenance recommendation was a move that will undoubtedly cost the city more money than the estimated increase of costs to implement it, because trees that could’ve been saved will continue to deteriorate without a proactive approach.
“Right now, the city’s in crisis mode” Doud said. “We’re just doing things on an emergency basis and we’re saying there needs to be a plan and they’re saying ‘well it’s going to cost money.’”
Other proposed measures to help close the funding gap for the department like reassessing permit fees charged for park use, exploring selling the naming rights of some facilities and developing plans to secure grants, donations or enter in public-private partnerships were all shot down by the department.
In a letter addressing the rejected recommendations, Doud pulled no punches, stating that the PRM department’s “business as usual” policy would only lead to the further depreciation of parks, trees and other maintenance issues overseen by the department.
“With the constraints facing this city, management must be proactive in seeking non-traditional solutions to these ongoing challenges,” Doud wrote. “If not, the condition of the city’s parks and trees will continue to decline.”