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  Fixing Richmond Departments, One by One
April 11, 2004

As the City’s financial crises enters its third month, I continue to receive pleas from residents (and non residents) to save endangered programs – particularly the Richmond Swim Center, community centers and the Library. See today’s West County TimesBudget makes for long summer with nothing to do,” which is copied following this E-Forum. 

One of the things that frustrates me most about the current financial crisis is the continued foot dragging and even refusal by the administration to emulate best practices in other cities that are not sinking in a sea of red ink. By all accounts, Richmond’s Recreation & Parks Department is scheduled to take the biggest hit, and it is also the one with years of mismanagement that has, in my opinion, contributed to its projected demise. 

The Richmond Recreation & Parks Department was the principal target of a blistering Grand Jury investigation in 1999 (see attached MSWORD file), but many of the practices seem to have been perpetuated. Most cities operate their Recreation & Parks Departments a “pay as you go” basis, recouping as much as 80% of the cost from users. According to a recent report, Richmond’s Recreation & Parks Department collected only $186,000 in fees compared to the $7,923,904 it costs to operate the department. That’s a little over 2% cost recovery. 

In all fairness to the department, some of this is due to pressure from some City Council members to keep user fees as low as possible in order to serve the high number of individuals, particularly children, who come from low income households. When money abounds, this may be a worthy public policy objective, but it is no longer tenable. Even in the good times, the policy was not implemented using common sense. 

For example, Winston & Strawn reported that the Richmond Convention Center (Auditorium) is operated at a loss, generating only $159,243 in income against $318,893 in expenses. The losses are only partly because the Convention Center is rented out at rates that are lower than its cost to operate. The primary problem, according to Winston & Strawn, is how it is operated. The current manager, while perhaps doing the best he can under the circumstances, has no prior experience producing or promoting shows and has received no formal training in operation of the Convention Center since he was appointed as coordinator eighteen months ago. “There is no reason,” continues the Winston & Strawn report, “why the City must continue to lose money operating the Convention Center.” The recommendation is to either outsource the entire operation of the Convention Center or enter into a contract with a promoter to book the facility for a fixed number of events. Within a year, the Convention Center could be returning hundreds of thousands of dollars to the City instead of the other way around.  

Let’s look at the Richmond Swim Center. The facility costs $449,004 annually to operate, including labor, water, utilities and maintenance. Although I have requested the information several times, the Richmond Recreation & Parks Department can’t even tell me what the income derived from the operation is or how many people use it. However, we do know that, compared to Hercules, El Cerrito, Albany and Berkeley, the Richmond Swim Center is a bargain. Its closest competitor, the City of El Cerrito, charges $5.50 for adult lap swimming, while Richmond charges only $3.00. It’s no wonder El Cerrito residents like to come to Richmond to swim; they get a 45% discount over their home town pool. Lap swimmers in Albany pay $5.00 and Berkeley, $4.50. Hercules is the same as Richmond, except non-residents pay a 33% premium. With some fee adjustments, it is possible that the Richmond Swim Center could move toward being self-supporting and not have to close. 

Here’s another idea from a contract teacher for a class offered by the Richmond Recreation & Parks Department: “I teach identical classes (as an independent contract instructor) through both the Richmond and San Anselmo recreation departments.  I realize most San Anselmo residents can afford to pay more for courses than many Richmond residents, so that department can charge more per class.  I discount my Richmond class accordingly.  However, San Anselmo both charges more and gives me a smaller split of the fees charged. (I still make more for my class in San Anselmo.)  Perhaps the [Richmond] rec department could charge a minimal fee for some free services and raise the rates on others a bit,  offer contract instructors a slightly lower split (say, 75/25% instead of 80/20), or loosen the requirement that a city employee be present at all functions held at rec department sites. (for example, someone needs to open and close the community center for the neighborhood council meeting, but perhaps it isn't necessary to pay a city employee to sit through it for several hours.)” 

That brings up another gripe I have about Richmond Recreation & Parks Department policy regarding community centers. A City employee always has to open and close the facilities and remain present while any activity is going on. Supposedly this is to protect the City from “liability.” This is, in my opinion, a myth. As a City Council member, I have learned, sadly, that the biggest liability to the City is not the public, but its own employees. I am reminded of this every time we pay out $100,000 to settle a lawsuit for some stupid or negligent action of a City employee, such as the sexual harassment complaint against Armand Mulder, and former Chief Samuels’ failure to deal with it appropriately. 

Another fact that is perhaps not well known about the Richmond Park & Recreation Department is that it has an unusually high cost per customer served. Also, a large part of the recreational activities available to Richmond residents is not provided by the Richmond Park & Recreation Department at all but but by a myriad of non-profits, such as PAL, soccer leagues, the mayor’s “Kids First” after school program grants, etc. I have always advocated that the City could deliver recreational activities more efficiently and effectively by operating less as a prime provider and more as a facilitator, connecting users with providers and providing the physical facilities, such as sports fields and community centers. At the same time, the department could monitor all of the opportunities as well as the number and demographics of persons being served and endeavor to develop programs to fill the gaps. In 1997, I authored, and the City Council passed unanimously, Resolution 60-97 (see attached MSWORD file.) intended to implement some of these principles. 

A resolution of the City Council is supposed to be public policy and is supposed to be implemented by the city manager and his staff. Not so in Richmond, where the staff runs the City instead of the City Council. The Richmond Recreation & Parks Department professionals have never implemented, or even acknowledged, Resolution 60-97. They are the experts, and they know better. Now their expertise will apparently deprive Richmond of a Recreation program in the future. 

I am sure there are other ways that Richmond’s recreation programs can be saved through better practices, and I solicit recommendations and suggestions from E-Forum readers.


Resolution Recreation.DOC

Budget makes for long summer with nothing to do
Posted on Sun, Apr. 11, 2004
By Rebecca Rosen Lum

RICHMOND - Just as school lets out for the year, Richmond youths are going to find their usual summer haunts padlocked, if the city lays off at least 200 city workers immediately and perhaps as many as 400 total by June.

Internal memos obtained by the Times show nearly the entire staff of the parks and recreation department and the library are to be handed their walking papers May 1.

All are casualties of a $7 million deficit and a projected shortfall of $21 million in 2004-2005.

This week, the City Council delayed implementation of a layoff plan it approved last month so impacts of the move could be discussed on Tuesday.

Without concessions by city unions, officials said the layoffs were a near certainty.

Branch libraries in Point Richmond and Crescent Park will be shuttered. There will be no summer reading program, which alone served 1,700 young people last year.

Swimming pools will stand empty, their lifeguards and instructors dispatched. Community centers across the city will sit idle.

"There won't be anything," said Tanya Swartz, director of the swim program. "Yesterday they asked us for four names to take off the list, but I don't know what kind of swim program you can run with four people."

According to preliminary figures, a scant 10 workers will remain on the recreation payroll and an additional seven in parks.

"Not a heck of a lot," said a grim Jesse Washington, the recreation and parks director, whose name is also on the layoff list.

It couldn't be a worse time to lose services, at least for Richmond's youths, many lacking money or transportation to take part in programs distant from their local parks.

In March, the West Contra Costa County Unified School District made $16.5 million in cuts for the 2004-05 school year, including all school libraries and sports.

"We are fast approaching 79 long, hot days of summer," said Shawna Griffin, recreation program coordinator at the Shields-Reid Community Center. "Not having any summer programs is only going to create havoc and chaos for parents."

More than 7,000 children and teens participate in after-school programs at Richmond's 13 community centers. More than 5,000 swim in the city's aquatics programs. An additional 3,000 participate in after-school and summer sports, including basketball, football, Junior Giants baseball and more.

Those who provide the services say neighboring cities and community-based organizations, including the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Club, will be pressed to take up the slack.

"We haven't started our summer registration yet, but our school-year programs are always full," said Kathy Duncan, division manager for San Pablo's recreation and parks department.

"We're anticipating an influx of patrons," said Monica Kortz, El Cerrito's recreation director. "Our day camps are not filled yet. And we can add swim classes. Some of the lap swimmers have already come over."

Nevertheless, "There are a lot of kids and families in Richmond who need the services, and who won't be able to get over to us."

Drastic cuts to the Richmond library are a final blow to a program that has failed to keep pace with Richmond's growing population, librarian Pat Clements said. "We should have been expanding right along with all the development, with every new household," she said.

Last year, the library served some 300,000 patrons.

"In the summer, the kids just load the place up," she said. "It makes me sick to think we won't be here for them. We're all saying to each other, 'You know, this is all going to be over if one of us wins the lottery.'"

As it stands, the Main Library at 325 Civic Center Plaza will remain open for 25 to 30 hours a week.

Although the library staff is expecting to "limp along with the Bookmobile," in the words of Clements, the Bookmobile driver position is on the cut list.

With shorter hours, no branches open and a skeleton crew of 13 employees, "more people will be here, the lines will be longer and there will be fewer of us to help patrons," said staffer Susan Harris. "We'll do our darndest, but it will be exceptionally taxing."