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L.A. County parks need funding. But so does the fight to end homelessness

June 20, 2016

When Los Angeles County supervisors asked voters to extend an expiring parcel tax for parks and open space two years ago, they did almost everything wrong.

They gave minimal notice to the public before putting the measure on the ballot. They had no countywide discussion on what to include or how much to charge. They did no comprehensive assessment of needs, so they had no plan to match the funding to the places with the fewest parks or the facilities in the most desperate state of disrepair. They planned to divide much of the money equally among themselves to spend in their five districts on their own priorities.

It was as if they were saying to voters, “Don’t worry about the details; we’ve worked this out among ourselves; we know what we’re doing. Just trust us and say yes to this tax.”

A majority of county voters did say yes, but the measure fell short of the needed two-thirds.

This time, the county has done almost everything right.

It hired experts who examined the existing park and recreation resources and mapped out the unmet needs, noting vast areas of L.A. in which residents are more than a comfortable walk from the nearest public park, pool, gym or open space. Officials conducted numerous community meetings, hearing out residents and learning what they wanted. They crafted a plan that tries to balance the competing desires for more open space in the mountains and near beaches, more new facilities in currently park-poor areas, and restoration and maintenance of eroding trails, dilapidated beach restrooms and long-neglected buildings and equipment.  Last month, they went back to residents with a series of public meetings to find out if they were missing anything.

The Board of Supervisors plotted out a good course and the county Regional and Park and Open Space District engaged in a process that was in many ways a model of public outreach and involvement. Officials brought back what appears to be a good (although very ambitious) product – one that would nearly double the assessment that property owners have been paying since 1992, but in the service of badly needed amenities that are crucial to the health, safety and quality of life of county residents.

The draft measure to be taken up by the Board of Supervisors — either Tuesday as originally scheduled, or later this month — is better than Proposition P, the  one that fell short in 2014.

But a lot has happened in two years. Two county supervisors were term-limited out, two new ones are in and the board, to its credit, has adopted four top, interrelated priorities: reforming the Sheriff’s Department, improving child protection, integrating health services – and dealing with homelessness.

Homelessness was a serious problem in 2014, and in fact has been a serious problem in Los Angeles County for decades. But it has reached a crisis level, and an unusual and welcome focus and resolve has emerged among elected officials to do something about it. County supervisors continue to explore a variety of funding ideas to help deal with the problem, and one of their back-up plans is a parcel tax.

Having made homelessness a top priority, the supervisors would have to be prepared to offer a compelling argument for moving ahead with a parcel tax for parks if it would compete with a funding plan for homelessness.

There will be smart-alecks who say the supervisors should just put the homeless in the parks, but it is no joke. It may come to that, absent a comprehensive and properly funded program for improving mental health and drug treatment, stopping the flow of newly homeless from hospitals, jails, shelters, condo conversions or persistent poverty — and of course stepping up construction of supportive housing and availability of services for homeless veterans.

As elected officials, county supervisors live in a political world ruled by polling and fundraising, so their focus is often on what is achievable — policy priorities notwithstanding. They might very well see a path forward that funds homeless services and still does the very necessary work they must do on parks, recreation and open space.  But they made homelessness their priority. They were right to do so. Let’s hope they remember that when they consider whether and when to go back to the voters with a parks tax.

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