Long Beach is in the process of becoming a member of two new park improvement districts that could help raise funds for open space acquisition, development and park maintenance for areas abutting the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers.

The city has adopted resolutions to join the Lower Los Angeles River Recreation and Park District and the Lower San Gabriel River Recreation and Parks District, which could include areas within a mile of each river.

Once the districts become active, they could raise funds for improving park space for their member cities through increasing property taxes, applying for grants and other outside funding, charging fees for using their facilities or shifting existing property taxes to help pay for parks.

In Long Beach, that could mean more funds to pay for maintenance in the city’s largest park, El Dorado, and the potential to fund the expansion of open space in North, West and Central Long Beach, areas of the city that have significantly less park acreage than more affluent communities elsewhere in Long Beach.

How will the districts work?

The districts would have 15- and 17-member boards of directors that would include an appointee from each member city. For the LA River district, the larger of the two, that would mean cities like Vernon, South Gate and Pico Rivera would join Long Beach on the park district board.

For the smaller San Gabriel board, Long Beach would be joined by cities like Artesia, Hawaiian Gardens, Bellflower and Santa Fe Springs.

Tyler Bonanno-Curley, Long Beach’s manager of government affairs, said that the city is pushing for greater representation on the board because it makes up a large share of both proposed districts.

A draft map of the Lower San Gabriel River Recreation and Park District boundaries.

Long Beach makes up about one-third of the lower LA River area and about one-fifth of the lower San Gabriel River area. Having a larger voice could be achieved by Long Beach having more than one vote or having a weighted-vote system to account for the population and size of each city’s share of the district.

Bonanno-Curley said the district would raise funds and vote on how to allocate them, but it would not have the ability to authorize projects. It would be similar to how the city applies for funding from the federal government, where it submits a list of projects it would like to be funded, and the park district board of directors would choose to direct funds to those projects or to other cities’ submissions.

“The big draw is a lot of the funding we’re allowed to apply for as a city—usually they’re limited to the acquisition and development of park space, but we have to cover the ongoing maintenance costs as a city,” he said.

While both districts are still going through the formation process, Bonanno-Curley said that they both could be up and running by mid-2024.

Where will the money come from? 

There are a variety of ways a park improvement district can raise funds, from soliciting donations to jointly applying for grants and even entering into public-private partnerships to develop park space.

However, Matthew Duarte, the executive director of the California Association of Recreation and Park Districts, which represents over 70 park improvement districts across the state, said the number one funding tool is assessments charged to property owners within the district boundaries to fund parks.

Some of those assessments can raise hundreds of millions for parks within districts and add on to homeowners’ monthly mortgages to pay them back.

A draft map of the proposed Lower Los Angeles Recreation and Park District presented to the City Council in 2022.

“People who have (park districts)—they’re very popular because everyone loves parks and open spaces and the value they bring. They get it,” Duarte said.

Those tax increases would be subject to a ballot measure and would need 66% of voters within the district to support them to pass.

Bonanno-Curley said that thus far, neither of the proposed districts Long Beach would be a part of are looking at levying any new fees.

Another avenue would be to pool together existing property taxes to help fund park developments. Property taxes are the number one revenue source for the city’s general fund, with approximately $212 million projected to fill the city’s coffers in the current fiscal year.

How could they benefit Long Beach? 

The city has plans to add park space to its existing acreage, but doing so could require it to dedicate more city funds toward ongoing maintenance and programming. This year, the budget for parks was just about 6% of the city’s general fund.

Unlike grants that the city receives to pay for development and improvements to parks, a park district could provide funding for maintenance and programs.

Bonanno-Curley said a proposed walking path along the San Gabriel River, which has already received $4.3 million in state funds to develop it, is an example of a project that could benefit from ongoing funding from a park district once it’s built out.

The city is also looking at several projects that could be in the LA River district footprint, like the expansion of Cesar Chavez Park by realigning Shoreline Drive, the potential transformation of the Terminal Island Freeway into a greenbelt and the acquisition of land along the river to convert into open space.

Grants could help build those, but funding ongoing costs for maintaining the plants, grass and trails would have to come from the general fund without a park district or other source of revenue.

A 2021 report issued by the city acknowledged that Long Beach already had a $20 million park maintenance shortfall and it only had funding for about 40% of the water needed to maintain its green space. Adding more parks could further stretch the parks department’s budget.

Duarte said that park districts are beneficial because they have one singular focus and can be more transparent with how park funds are being allocated because they’re not being mixed into larger city budgets.

“The benefit of park districts is that you have directly elected local government officials who will have one singular charge—a mission to deliver the best recreation facilities and activities and services to their constituents,” Duarte said.

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.