San Dieguito River Park cuts still stand, officials weigh their options

By Joe Tash


Three months after the San Diego City Council took the unprecedented step of cutting all city funding for the San Dieguito River Park, cuts of more than $300,000 to the park’s budget stand in spite of efforts to restore the funding. Park officials are now weighing options for painful budget cuts.

The city’s budget cuts come in two phases: $63,000 from this year’s budget, and $254,000 in the fiscal year beginning July 1. River park Executive Director Dick Bobertz said the park has instituted work furloughs for employees to cover the gap this year, but more drastic cuts, such as elimination of employee health and retirement benefits, or cuts to the 10-person staff, will be needed starting July 1.

Bobertz has recommended that the park’s board of directors eliminate three administrative positions, including his own, which would allow the park to preserve its staff of five park rangers. A final decision on the park’s budget for next year is pending.

“That stops us in our tracks. All you would possibly be able to do under this scenario is maintain what’s already been developed in the river park,” said Bobertz of his recommendation. “What it adds up to is we’re trying to remain in existence and protect what we have at a very, very low level of service until the staff can be built back up again.”

On March 1, four North County mayors and the chairwoman of the county board of supervisors wrote to San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, requesting a meeting to discuss the city’s elimination of river park funding. The letter accuses the city of taking a “‘go it alone’ approach” that could jeopardize the river park’s future. The mayor’s office responded on Wednesday that the meeting will be held in mid-April, said Bobertz.

The linear park was launched in 1989 with a joint powers agreement between the city and county of San Diego and the cities of Del Mar, Solana Beach, Escondido and Poway. Until now, each member agency has contributed to the park’s budget, which is $1.34 million in the current fiscal year.

The ultimate vision for the park is a 55-mile hiking, biking and equestrian trail from Vulcan Mountain near Julian to the beach at Del Mar. Over the past 21 years, park officials have completed about 35 miles of the trail, along with another five miles of side trails, and other projects such as a pedestrian and bicycle bridge over Lake Hodges and lagoon restoration projects.

County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Pam Slater-Price, a member of the river park’s board, called the park the “Yosemite of Southern California,” that has become a popular recreation spot for San Diegans.

Among those who have worked to restore the funding is San Diego Councilwoman Sherri Lightner, whose North City district includes portions of the river park. Lightner joined her council colleagues in December in supporting a budget package to close a $179 million shortfall — including elimination of the river park funding — but in an interview shortly after the vote, she expressed optimism that the city’s contribution could be restored.

Last week, she sounded less certain. “It will take a quite Herculean effort to get that funding back in the budget,” said Lightner, referring to the city’s general fund. At this point, she said, the river park must look at budget cuts, and possibly re-examine its funding sources and formulas, to remain viable in the future.

“We have not given up. We are exploring all options,” said Lightner. Among those options, she said, are looking at the park’s funding formula, under which 36 percent of the member agency contributions come from the city of San Diego. Another possibility, she said, is an expanded role for the state’s 22nd District Agricultural Association, which operates the Del Mar fairgrounds.

Another option that has been studied is moving the city’s river park contribution from the Parks and Recreation Department, which comes under the general fund, to the city’s water department, which is funded by water ratepayers. The park contribution came from the water department until 2006, when the county grand jury criticized the practice because it said ratepayers’ funds could only be used for services related to providing water to customers.

Last month, the San Diego City Attorney’s office issued a nine-page legal opinion that concluded the water department could legally fund the river park “for those activities that protect or improve drinking water quality or supply, but we defer to the water utility as to whether those activities can be identified and quantified.”

Bobertz ticked off a list of such activities, which include spending $18 million to buy land in the water shed to protect it from development; controlling invasive plants that deplete the water supply; keeping off-road vehicles from the water shed and directing hikers, bicyclists and equestrians to stay on designated trails to reduce erosion; and removing illegal dump sites to prevent water contamination.

But according to Lightner, the water department contends that because it treats the water from its Lake Hodges reservoir before it goes to customers, the river park’s activities are not necessary for preserving water quality.

Bobertz, though, said returning the funding to the water department is the park’s best option, and to make that happen, “the mayor has to be convinced.”

To that end, Bobertz hand-delivered the letter to Sanders from the mayors of river park member cities Del Mar, Solana Beach, Escondido and Poway, and Supervisor Slater-Price, asking for a meeting to discuss river park funding.

The letter urged Sanders to reconsider the city’s decision to “unilaterally terminate all funding” to the river park, and noted accomplishments, such as the purchase of some 3,000 acres of open space, and the receipt of $160 million in grant funds for park improvements.

“We understand the financial challenges faced by the city of San Diego. All member agencies face financial challenges. However, it is our hope that before any member agency takes unilateral action to cut off funding, it will first work with its contractual partners to fully understand the ramifications of such action,” said the letter.

Sanders’ spokesman Darren Pudgil did not return a phone message seeking comment about the North County mayors’ letter by press-time.