April 8, 2011 (Lemon Grove) – By a 4-1 vote, the Lemon Grove City Council ordered staff to come up with a plan to shut down its Parks & Recreation Department, outsource programs for children and adults to the YMCA, but find a means to keep other functions of the department.
Those functions include leasing recreation buildings to community groups and operating city events, such as the holiday bonfire and concerts in the park. Staff will present its report to Council on May 3rd.
Councilman George Gastil cast the lone dissenting vote, arguing, “I don’t think we are at a point to consider such a drastic change.”
Council considered four options.
The first would outsource youth programs such as summer day camps, youth sports and day care to the East County Boys and Girls Club. While all councilmembers praised Boys and Girls Club programs, they rejected this option because the Boys and Girls Club wanted a 25-year minimum with option to renew and could not provide adult recreation programs.
The second option would outsource both youth and adult programs to the East County. Councilmembers expressed positive views regarding the quality of YMCA-run programs.
YMCA chairman Allen Carlisle testified that the YMCA raises over $400,000 each year and assured that “Our philosophy for scholarships is that no one will be turned away due to inability to pay” and emphasized that under the programs, “children ill learn something new every day.” He said the YMCA programs “serve the entire family,” noting that the YMCA also offers programs for active seniors .
Option three calls for the city to revamp its Parks & Recreation Department to be more entrepreneurial, aggressively marketing programs that are profitable such as some adult recreation classes outside of Lemon Grove. “We looked at that and said `cha-ching,’” city manager Graham Mitchell observed, noting that just posting classes on the city website is not enough. Under option three, the City would also enter into negotiations with the YMCA or Boys and Girls Club as a fall-back plan in case the entrepreneurialism didn’t prove profitable.
Option four, or what Mitchell called the “scorched earth” policy would result in complete elimination of the department and layoff of three long-time employees. According to a report prepared by city staff, net savings for the four proposed options would be:
Boys & Girls Club $86,000
New Recreation Services Dept. $80,000
Eliminate Recreation Services Dept. $103,000
The audience consisted largely of YMCA members who came to show support. According to Gastil, the City made no special efforts to notify the public about the agenda item beyond standard notices. Several residents, however, did speak on the issue.
“Recreation to me is one of the key components of a city, right after police and fire safety,” said resident Brenda Hamond. “It’s what makes people want to live here, stay here, and play here.”
Helen Ofield, president of the Lemon Grove Historical Society, urged the Council to keep its recreation programs and employees. “What about the vast majority of our residents who are clinging to the middle class by the skin of their teeth?” she said, adding that the people need affordable services and that staff has done a good job of keeping rental facilities full.
She chided Councilman Howard Cook, a vocal advocate for eliminating the department, recalling Parks and Recreation employees “putting in that nice iron railing next to Mr. Cook’s restaurant.”
Cook contended that “The YMCA and Boys and Girls Club get donations in the millions. They have more money in their bank account than we have in the whole City of Lemon Grove.” He said the lay-offs are necessary, adding, “I didn’t want to lay a girl off last week who worked with me, but I had to.”
Councilman Gastil noted that “These kids aren’t going to stay kids forever…For me, the biggest consideration is what’s going to be the best for serving the young people of Lemon Grove. Second is what will be best for serving adults.” He argued for option 3, in which the City recovers costs for its programs by marketing those that are profitable outside city limits. “If we do have the best programs, people will want to enroll their children and pay for it,” he said. “I like the idea of being entrepreneurial.”
Councilwoman Mary England, who is also president of the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce, cited comparisons of programs in other communities. “It is about the kids at the end of the day; I don’t want everything to be about money,” she said. “I want us to come up with a hybrid.”
Councilman Jerry Jones seemed undecided initially, noting that “A city for me is more than just a place to live.” He observed that “We outsourced our fire department and it cost us a lot of money; we never want to go through that again.” He also expressed concern that shutting down the department could, according to a staff report, impact emergency services including shelter availability. “That scares me,” he acknowledged. Jones added that “If anybody failed here, it was us,” noting that Council only directed staff recently to attempt full cost recovery and that thus far, staff has done what was asked of them.
But in the end, he joined with the majority to support a motion brought by Mayor Mary Sessom.
Mayor Sessom said that can be “no sacred cows” and observed that the budget crunch means tough choices. “Are we going to lose programs, or are we going to lose services such as streets and fire?” she asked. She expressed doubts that entrepreneurialism could work and said the City doesn’t have months to resolve its budget woes.
“If we didn’t do one single youth program in this community again, everybody would be upset, but life would go on,” said the Mayor.
She then challenged Mitchell to find a way to keep services such as building rentals, banners, the bonfire and concerts, such as hiring a PR department to handle some functions or charging for placement of banners.
Steve Rowe, executive director of the East County YMCA, speaking with ECM after the vote, said the organization is “excited about the opportunity to expand our services in Lemon Grove.” He assured that the YMCA is prepared to “provide resources to see that this community is well served.”