February 1, 2003 - From the February, 2003 issue

Ellie Oppenheim Contrasts San Diego's Lean City Hall With L.A.'s Bureaucratic Ways

One of the development challenges facing a built-out city like Los Angeles is establishing and financing joint-use agreements across public and private interests, particularly involving schools and parks. TPR is pleased to present this interview with Ellie Oppenheim, Director of Recreation and Parks for the city of San Diego and the former director of the same department for the city of Los Angeles, in which she discusses the differences between the two departments and cities in how they approach and deliver on joint-use opportunities.

Ellie, after leading the Department of Recreation and Parks for the city of Los Angeles, you are now the new Director of Park and Recreation for the City of San Diego. Compare the management challenges you face in San Diego with those you faced in L.A., particularly through the lens of developing joint-use projects.

In Los Angeles the only organization that made the city look like an easy and a fast place to do business was LAUSD. With the best of intentions, while we all wanted to make joint-use occur in Los Angeles, it was extraordinarily difficult to accomplish.

One of the things that is a refreshing change of pace in San Diego is that we have 75 joint-use agreements in place and operating right now and we're working on more. The City Council and the School District just approved a broad memorandum of understanding that describes how we're going to do future joint-use agreements. Working with the San Diego Unified staff is a breath of fresh air. They promise, they deliver, and we're working effectively together.

What makes that easier to do? Is it scale? Is it structure? Is it finance? Is it personalities? What is the major difference between the two cities?

The staff in San Diego Unified are empowered and committed, and they make it happen. At LAUSD, despite the best of intentions, it seemed to be much more difficult to bring projects to fruition. Maybe staff has to hop from project to project or priority-to-priority, I'm not clear. All I know is, the only way joint use projects got attended to in LAUSD was when there was a board member who was willing to champion it, and to drive it forward.

How has the local and state's budget crisis impacted a conservative town like San Diego re funding park services and public infrastructure?

Well, let me give you a couple of comparisons. In Los Angeles, we had 15,600 acres of parkland. Here in San Diego, we have over 35,000 acres of parkland. In L.A., I had almost 2,000 full time staff. In San Diego, I have less than a thousand full time staff. So, with more than twice the acres we have less than half the staff to support them. There's a reason why we've won the award from the Reason Foundation as the most efficient park and recreation department in California for the seventh consecutive year in the city of San Diego. On the other hand, we are so lean that it's extraordinarily difficult just to maintain our basic assets and to provide fundamental programming. Here in San Diego, the greatest strength of the Park and Recreation Department is our terrific parks and abundant open space facilities. Whereas in Los Angeles, with half the park acres of San Diego, more of the focus is on recreational programming.

Now, in the wake of the current situation with both the local economy and the state budget situation, we are looking at the prospect of extraordinary cuts. In San Diego we're starting with a very low base. Historically this was a very Republican town, with low taxes and fees to residents and businesses and hence today there is a lean level of support for all city services, including park and recreation. Our situation in Park and Recreation isn't unique, based on how the city has supported libraries and other services. But, because of the current budget climate we're facing the potential of very serious cuts. Cuts that will have a direct impact on services to both local residents and visitors.

What will be your approach for dealing with the expected budget cuts?

We're examining what our core services are - health and safety; protection of our physical park assets; services to children, seniors and people with disabilities who live in low-income situations; park maintenance, etc and identifying what's most essential. We will identify the most fundamental services and where we have the greatest discretion and we'll take the money we have and start with the most essential services and work our way through each of the functions until we run out of money. Unfortunately, I think that short of a dramatic economic recovery we're going to be facing big cuts, ones that won't be popular with our residents. But, there aren't a lot of choices. The local economy is soft, and the tremendous uncertainty associated with what's going on at the state level isn't making this any better. In fact, it has the potential to force us into even more serious service reductions once the State determines how it is going to balance the State budget.

San Diego is known to be one of America's most livable cities. Yet, I gather there's a reluctance to support government services with added taxes. How can the city take pride in its quality of life and at the same time cynically fight additional taxes to support public services and needed infrastructure investment in its neighborhoods? How do the two states of mind, which seemingly conflict with each other, co-exist?


I'm not sure I have enough history in San Diego to give you a good picture of that. I can tell you that the city has historically operated with a very low tax base. I can also tell you that, from what I see on the park and recreation side, there's tremendous commitment and support for parks in San Diego. Let me give you a couple of examples.

In Los Angeles, we thought we were doing extraordinarily well when we had about 10,000 people involved as volunteers in our park and recreation system. In San Diego we have 20,000 volunteers. It's also clear that despite the fact that we have more municipal park acres than any other large city in the country right now, there is a tremendous appetite to add more parks, both in traditional neighborhood and community parks and in open space parks. Our residents clearly say, regularly and in many ways that they're looking for more parks. In fact this strong desire for parks is one of the things that has made San Diego a great place to live. But, what is also striking is that we haven't got the financial support we'd like to provide for the maintenance and programming for the acres we already own.

City of Villages has been a dominant theme here in local politics for some time now. The council just acted on it but there's increasing cynicism in the local communities about whether the quid pro quo for greater density will ever be honored by the city, in terms of infrastructure investment. How do you see this, from your perspective at Rec and Park?

We're in a situation right now where we've been asked to identify up to 13 percent annual budget cuts to be implemented and completed on our base budget prior to June 30. Let's just say, for the sake of discussion, that we implement the reductions March 1. If in fact the worst-case scenario came to pass and we had to implement the full 13 percent cuts, that would mean effectively, a 39 percent cut for the balance of the fiscal year. I hope that we won't have to go that far! And on top of that the city departments have been asked to develop 10 percent reduction proposals for next year. With all due respect, the City of Villages lays out a grand approach, but we've got a situation where at least for the short term the challenge is going to be: can we even support public safety in this city the way we want to? And then, can we support all the other things people care about that we're already doing: parks, libraries, and other fundamental services? Choices will have to be made about what can we sustain and what we will have to let go. I suspect that there isn't enough money in the current system to sustain what our residents will probably say are absolutely fundamental services.

So is the net result that there is no way to intelligently plan for the expected significant growth in population in San Diego? Is not the quality of life that San Diegans care so much about and pride themselves on at stake in the current budget debate?

I think we're into at least a two-year, short-term crisis scenario, where the immediate objective is to manage our way through this, minimizing - as best is possible, the significant service impacts on the community. Then, we must identify what's going to work for the long term. It's clear to me that San Diegans want, demand, and expect a high level of service. Somewhere, the voters are going to have to decide if they back that up with the revenues to support that level of service. Or, are we going to make enormous cuts? It's a choice. Will voters support new revenue sources? As an example, San Diego is the only city I know of that doesn't charge for trash collection.

A joint-powers agreement now exists between the school district and city for implementing within city Heights the further development of San Diego's City of Villages urban infill effort? Is your department part of this unique effort?Is it a model?

We've got a very good working relationship in San Diego between the city and its school district -the best I've seen in the three largest cities in California. That's a plus that's working for us. We have active, successful joint use agreements where in most cases the City has come in with funding to turf over decomposed granite school district fields, making them more playable for school use, making them accessible for community use after school, and improving the appearance and health of neighborhoods by adding grass and green space. And clearly, we have a city council interested in developing a whole lot more joint use agreements. The City Council and the School Board just approved an MOU that lays the groundwork so that we can add more sites without having to reinvent the wheel each time.

The City Heights approach is a new model that predated my arrival in San Diego. I'm working to get my staff up to speed and involved in it. These days we have to look at more kinds of partnership opportunities to do creative things because no one of the public agencies can do it alone. And, as we're struggling to maintain what we're already supporting with declining resources, we have to look for opportunities to leverage-this may well be another one. We've certainly got good success going with the existing City Heights model. One of the things we're specifically looking at right now is a proposal from a partner to help convert some of the fields to artificial turf to expand the useable hours a week the sports fields can be played on. That would be helpful because the fields are so heavily used right now that we can't keep turf alive on them. The conversion would help enhance both the existing school and recreation programs.


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