By Joe Tash
The San Diego City Council, struggling to close a $179 million budget gap, has voted to eliminate city funding of the San Dieguito River Park, which was established 20 years ago and is envisioned one day to include a 55-mile trail from Volcan Mountain near Julian to the beach at Del Mar.
Council members Sherri Lightner and Carl DeMaio, who sit on the board of the agency that oversees the river park, along with Councilwoman Donna Frye, are working to restore $368,885 that was cut from the Parks and Recreation Department budget, which funded the city's contribution to the river park for the final quarter of this year, and the entire following year.
But unless those efforts are successful — which include determining the legality of transferring the payments from the parks department to the better-
financed city water department — the cuts, some 36 percent of the river park's operating budget, will stand.
Lightner was optimistic about restoring the funding in an interview last week. "I think it looks very hopeful," she said.
The river park was launched in 1989 with the establishment of a joint powers authority, a governmental agency with representatives from the county of San Diego and the five cities in which the park is contained — San Diego, Del Mar, Solana Beach, Escondido and Poway. The authority, or JPA, operates on an annual budget of about $900,000.
The council voted 7-1, with DeMaio opposed, to approve a budget plan submitted by Mayor Jerry Sanders, which includes the layoffs of about 200 city employees, elimination of mounted police horse patrols in Balboa Park, reduced staffing at some city fire stations on a rotating basis, a reduction in the number of police canine units, reduced library hours and elimination of the popular fire rings on city beaches.
The cuts span the remainder of the current fiscal year, which ends in June, and the following budget year, which begins July 1.
Sanders said the city must make painful cuts because of a plunge in revenue caused by the recession, but river park supporters criticized the decision.
"If the City Council does vote to pull out of the river park, I'm going to consider it a betrayal," said Dick Bobertz, executive director of the joint powers authority, said in an interview before the council vote. "The city of San Diego was the lead agency in setting up the river park to start with. After supporting it for 20 years and creating a success, to just withdraw is an extremely unwise, short-sighted and bad decision."
"It is a betrayal. They entered into this JPA, there was no gun held to their head," said County Supervisor Pam Slater-Price, current chairwoman of the JPA board.
"It's shocking. It's a resource that a lot of people have spent a tremendous amount of volunteer hours on, and a lot of contributions to bring it to position the park's in now," said Chaco Clotfelter, a Rancho Santa Fe resident and member of the San Dieguito Community Planning Group. "I think it's in imminent danger ... we don't know what's going to happen to the land if the funding is cut off and we lose staff."
Most of the JPA's budget goes to pay the salaries of the equivalent of eight full-time staff positions, including five rangers who perform such jobs as building new sections of trail and maintaining the park's existing trails, said Bobertz. If the city funding is not restored, Bobertz said, most of the corresponding cuts in the JPA's budget will have to come from staffing reductions.
Over the past 20 years, some 35 miles of the planned "Coast to Crest" trail have been completed. The longest segment, a 25-mile stretch from Bandy Canyon Road in the east to the edge of Crosby Estates in the west, was recently completed with a trail addition near Lake Hodges. (A 1.5-mile section of that trail is temporarily closed for the installation of an underground tunnel to transfer water from the Olivenhain Reservoir to Lake Hodges.)
Among the JPA's projects was a recently completed bicycle and pedestrian bridge across Lake Hodges and a major habitat restoration effort at the San Dieguito Lagoon, which will include a new visitor center.
"We come to work every day and we look for big money to pay for projects," Bobertz said.
According to Bobertz, over the past 20 years, the six JPA members have contributed some $8.5 million in public funds to the park, while the JPA has brought in some $160 million in state and federal grants and other funds, or a return of about 20 to one.
While Bobertz and others said they are concerned other JPA members will follow San Diego's lead in cutting funding for the river park, according to Slater-Price, member agencies indicated they had no such plans during a board meeting held last Friday. That includes the county, which contributes about one-fourth of the JPA's funding, said Slater-Price.
At the time of the JPA's formation, San Diego's payments were budgeted from the city's water department. However, the obligation was later moved to the city's general fund, under the parks department, from concern that funds generated from water customers could not be used for non-water purposes such as funding the park. That view was supported last week by City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, who said such use of water funds would not be legal.
Lightner and DeMaio, though, said they want more information about the park's services for lands owned by the water department, which could provide legal justification for shifting the city's contribution back to the water department.
River park staff last week compiled a three-page document listing park functions that directly benefit water system assets, such as watershed property acquisition and maintenance, habitat restoration and invasive species removal, ranger patrols and control of public access, litter and illegal dumping.
Another possibility for funding the river park, Lightner said, could come through collection of delinquent lease payments owed to the city, including payments from the Fairbanks Ranch Country Club for the use of city-owned land where its clubhouse and golf course are located.
DeMaio said he also wants the JPA to look at whether its budget can be reduced, and whether the city's share of the JPA budget should be adjusted downward.
If the city cuts do stand, said Slater-Price, the JPA will have to look at turning over the responsibility and cost of maintaining city of San Diego land back to the city.
Slater-Price said many residents in communities adjoining the river park, including Del Mar, Carmel Valley and Rancho Santa Fe, strongly support the park and won't be happy with the city's funding cut.
"The idea this would be lopped off in a wholesale cut would not sit well with these voters," Slater-Price said.