You Get What You Pay For

February 1, 2015, Department, by Sandra J. Gonzalez

Investing in community parks and recreation can pay dividends for the future.Six years ago, the City of Pico Rivera, California, was similar to many other Los Angeles suburbs — a working-class population, high Hispanic demographic and ever-growing demands from the community. The parks and facilities were tired and worn, the athletic fields were overused and there was no funding to implement major capital improvements. With slightly more than 100 acres contained within its nine local parks, hundreds of people used Pico Rivera’s open public spaces every day. Without some sort of structural increase to its revenue, the city would have to shut down recreational programs, close its community pool facility and possibly lay off employees. 

A grassroots group of residents took up the cause, which resulted in the proposal of a local sales tax ballot measure. Measure P, as it was called, would raise the sales tax in the city from 8.25 percent to 9.25 percent to fund the preservation of public safety and community programs, as well as prevent significant cuts to essential services. The revenue would support general city services, including hiring additional police, maintaining anti-gang and graffiti efforts, facilitating youth and after-school parks and recreation services, expanding libraries and parks, fixing city streets and other essential neighborhood improvements. The revenue generated by the additional sales tax would enable the city to issue and sell Pico Rivera’s Vital City Services Bond, the proceeds of which would provide approximately $6 million per year to implement a Parks Master Plan and renovate several of the existing older parks. 

But the unintended consequence of a 1-percent increase in statewide sales tax saw this blue-collar city of 63,000 people paying the highest rate in the state, and one of the steepest in the nation. In all, Pico Rivera sales taxes will have climbed from 8.25 percent to 10.75 percent over a three-month period. 

At first glance, the odds of such a bill passing might seem ridiculous. Sales tax makes everything we buy just a little more expensive. Why would hard-working families choose to pay even more money each time they went shopping? Furthermore, would the approval of an increase in sales tax cause Pico Rivera residents to drive a few miles into a neighboring city, simply to avoid the additional costs?

The community rallied. A group set up by residents in favor of the tax opened a small office and began walking neighborhoods door to door, to tell the community about the benefits of Measure P. As expected, the residents had questions, and many citizens had concerns. They were concerned that it would be too expensive to shop in Pico Rivera, and they would be inconvenienced by having to shop outside the city. Countering this fear was the reality that without additional revenue, residents would be affected by cuts in recreational programming and public works services. The residents understood the importance of maintaining the same level of services to which they were accustomed.

City employees felt that without this sales tax increase, Pico Rivera would have a difficult time getting back on its feet. Parks and recreation and public works full-time staff members were challenged with gaining support from hourly employees. The grassroots campaign would require all employees to help with evening rallies and phone campaigning. Parks and Recreation Supervisor Lupe Aguilar, who had been with the department for more than 35 years, spearheaded the employee charge. “Nothing was easy about this campaign. It was difficult getting staff from the various city departments to assist with weekend sign distribution, and door-to-door marketing,” she says. 

In the management of volunteers, strong leaders who had the trust of employees and a connection with the community were required. In the end, they, too, took up the cause, using their personal time to become involved and engage community groups, churches, unions and the chamber of commerce. While some merchants were against the proposal, feeling it may hurt their bottom line, in the end, Measure P passed with an overwhelming majority.

Fast forward to 2014. Thanks to the actions taken by this passionate community, Pico Rivera now boasts a beautiful 16,000-square-foot LEED-Certified county library, and $20 million in major park renovations, including state-of-the-art ballfields, playgrounds and a football stadium. “Never underestimate the power of strong leadership and the voice of a community,” Aguilar says. 

Pico Rivera’s residents continue to enjoy the fruits of their labor, and the city has become a formidable presence in the arena of parks and recreation. Visiting youth baseball teams coming from wealthy towns such as Pacific Palisades, Redondo Beach and Los Alamitos enter the Pico Rivera ballfields with wide-eyed delight and astonishment at the world-class amenities. 

Across the state of California, school budgets continue to be slashed and critical public services are being cut. But thanks to the vision and the voice of a strong and united community, Pico Rivera stands proudly as a beacon for other progressive cities to emulate. It may cost a bit more to buy a new pair of tennis shoes in this town, but ultimately, you do get what you pay for.

Sandra J. Gonzalez is the Director of Parks and Recreation in Pico Rivera, California.