Civically Speaking is a weekly newsletter on the latest local government news from the lens of the Long Beach Post’s City Hall reporter, who sits through so many city meetings for us.
A new way to pay for green space
If you were wondering what the heck a special park improvement district is, you and I may have been on the same wavelengths at some point this week.
There are over 70 special park districts throughout the state but none of them include Long Beach—yet.
By this time next year, Long Beach could be at the base of two different special park districts, which city officials hope will drive funding to the city for the creation of new park space and help pay for ongoing maintenance for parks new and old.
One would run along the Los Angeles River and the other would along the San Gabriel River and include multiple cities to the north. Both districts would include parcels within one mile of the river, which is important to note because one of the main funding mechanisms of these districts is property taxes.
While you wouldn’t have a vote on who gets appointed to these boards of directors once they get off the ground, you would have a say in whether your property taxes increase to fund park initiatives.
Because any assessment would be considered a special tax, it would require 66% of residents in the new districts to support it. I’m told that the two proposed districts are not leaning in the direction of raising property taxes. But things can always change.
I spoke to Matthew Duarte, the executive director of the California Association of Recreation and Park Districts, which represents and advocates on behalf of the 70+ special districts in the state.
He said park districts are “the most direct form of government” and a way to get the highest use of tax-payer funds. The funds raised by districts don’t have to compete with police, fire or economic development as they currently do in the city’s municipal budget.
Duarte said they can also raise funds through programming fees, though that’s typically a small amount, or through applying for grants. But the funding would all go to parks.
“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.
The park districts would operate similarly to how the LA County Metro Board does. It would have members appointed by the county Board of Supervisors and member cities
It would raise funds and provide assistance to member cities in planning projects but it wouldn’t have unilateral power to approve projects. It could be like a piggy-bank that cities could ask for funds to build projects within the district boundaries.
Last year, Long Beach dedicated just 6% of its general fund to park funding. Yes, parks get outside grant funding, but those are often laden with restrictions and are highly competitive as other cities and special park districts are often vying for the same pots of federal and state funding.
A 2021 report issued by the city said that it was spending just $5,000 per acre on park maintenance and $7,300 per acre on operations. That’s about 30% and 69% of industry averages, respectively.
Adding more park space, something this City Council says it’s interested in, means more funding will have to be dedicated to parks or new park space will have to split the same pot of money with existing parks.
The same report said the city was already operating at a $20 million park maintenance deficit and had enough money to pay for about 40% of the water needed for grass and trees in city parks.
Adding new park space was characterized as “not impossible, but challenging” when I spoke to city management in 2021.
Long Beach has a host of projects that could benefit from the proposed districts, including developing the Green Terminal Island Freeway, the Chavez Park expansion and developing parcels along the LA River path—estimated at $27.5 million in 2021— into open space.
Those projects could all fall into the Lower LA River district, according to an early version of the proposed map.
The San Gabriel park district could help the city develop and maintain a proposed walking path along the river that already received $4.3 million in state funding. It could also help pay for annual maintenance for the city’s larger park, El Dorado, which is 400 acres and has many dead and dying trees and other infrastructure needs.
Long Beach could have a larger voice on these boards because they make up the largest share of any member city. How much funding they end up sending to the city is to be determined. City officials hope that the districts can be something special for the city’s green space.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS WEEK:
A developer wants to turn the Dolly Varden Hotel in Downtown into 141 units of new housing, but a vote by the Cultural Heritage Commission this week delayed it from potentially moving forward. The commission was supposed to decide if the historic sign could be temporarily removed while the hotel is demolished and the new building is constructed. The sign was designated as historic in 1995, but the hotel never was. Commissioners asked that the building be reassessed for potential historic status and also raised questions bout how two prominent murals on the Varden Hotel could be preserved or incorporated into the new building. There’s no date set for when the commission will rehear the item, which means a potential vote by the Planning Commission will be pushed out into the future.
PAY ATTENTION TO THIS NEXT WEEK:
I’m starting to feel a bit like that Bernie Sanders meme (not the one with the mittens) but I’m once again asking you to show up to the Utilities Commission meeting Thursday to sound off on the proposed rates for water, sewer and natural gas. Last week, the commission indicated that water rates would likely increase because of a number of issues, with the department’s aggressive capital improvement plan and customers using less water being two of the top drivers. The department is recommending a 10% increase, which could add about $5.69 to the average user’s monthly bill. The June 8 meeting is scheduled for 11 a.m. and could be the last budget meeting before the commission approves its budget on June 22.