"Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
This week's newsmaker is Rick Gould, director of Parks, Recreation and Community Services for the city of Santa Clarita. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.
Signal: The city did some departmental shifting over the summer; is your title still "Director of Parks, Recreation and Community Services?"
Gould: It is still my title. My department is about the only one that didn't change. We have been pretty consistent for a number of years.
Signal: What all are you in charge of?
Gould: We have three or actually four major divisions in my department.
One is parks, and it's everything you would expect with parks everything from maintaining (them) to planning for the new parks that come into the future. It's actually the largest division that we have, because we have a number of parks spread across the community, and it's such a large city in terms of square miles, it really takes a lot of effort to get to all the nooks and crannies.
Recreation is just what it sounds like. It provides traditional services from swimming pools to day camps to after-school classes to sports like adult softball to youth basketball.
Community Services is a division that really tries to deal with some of the problems in our community and intervene in areas where we think we really can make a difference. In fact, coming up real shortly, we have an event called "Teen Scene Unplugged" where we try to tackle some of the issues facing teens in this community. We deal with graffiti, we deal with gang issues, and outreaches to a lot of those areas where we think we can make a difference in the community and really make this a better place to live.
And finally we have a section called the Arts and Events section. That's the real fun section where they put on the major events that you see in town, from the Cowboy Festival to the Santa Clarita Marathon. Upcoming they are having the Santa Clarita Street Art Festival in downtown Newhall.
So it's a pretty diverse department. There's always something going on. It never seems to slow down. It's, "What's the flavor du jour?"
Signal: The last one you mentioned, the Street Art Festival, is coming up soon. What can people expect to see there?
Gould: It's the first weekend in October. It's going to be on San Fernando Road from Lyons (Avenue) all the way down to in front of the Canyon Theatre Guild. We're going to take that street and turn it into festival seating. It's a chalk art festival on the street itself. You will have 88 artists who are actually out in the street doing street art, really whatever they want to do. We have a number of booths, actually a bunch of booths that will be lining all the streets not only from merchants from the downtown Newhall area, but also from all across the Santa Clarita Valley.
On Saturday night of that event, Boogie Nights is playing, so we will have live music and actually there will be live music throughout the event. But the big feature will be Saturday night with Boogie Nights.
It's really going to be a festival, a multicultural festival. It's artists from all cultures and all walks of life. You may remember there was a festival in this town at one time called Bella Via. It was in the (Valencia) Town Center area. That was really focused on Italian art. This is really much broader. It's really an attempt to bring a community festival into the Newhall area. We think it will be very successful. We're already getting great feedback and we'd encourage people to come down.
Signal: You've already got plans for next year?
Gould: Absolutely. We'll go back and do it again, and well make it bigger and better. We're already well into working on the Cowboy Festival, which comes up in late April; the Marathon is in November, and we're always looking a new opportunities to do different things.
We're looking at an "Art in the Park" event and constantly looking for things. We know that some major sporting events are probably coming to town in 2006. Canyon Aquatics, which is our local aquatic swim team in USA swimming, was awarded in the Junior Olympics, I believe in late August of 2006. That will bring some of the best young swimmers across the western United States to Santa Clarita.
Signal: When the city of Santa Clarita was formed in 1987 there was a "parks deficit" not enough parks for the population. The city has since opened a number of neighborhood parks as well as Central Park, but we hear there's still a deficit. What are you doing to close that gap?
Gould: When the city was formed in 1987, what we inherited from the previous government was 57 acres of parks. We should have had substantially more. In fact, there was a survey done by (an outside) company at that time, and it wasn't just focused on parks; it was focused on roads and all of the infrastructure a city really needs to survive. They said at the time and this is really a hard to imagine, because it's numbers I never deal with there was a $1 billion deficit in Santa Clarita Valley infrastructure, and a major portion of that was parks.
The city has done a lot stuff to address those infrastructure deficits. The cross-valley connector road is a classic example. It's a $250 million road, and for the city to undertake that is incredible. By the same token, we've been trying to address the parkland deficit, and the city, I think, has gone to incredible lengths to decrease that deficit. But it still exists. We're at about 250 to 260 acres of active, developed parkland right now, that the city owns and operates. That is a tremendous increase from only 15 years ago, basically. We still have to get to 800 acres. That's the deficit. We need to be at 800 acres to meet the national standard of the National Parks and Recreation Association.
Signal: You've got a ways to go.
Gould: We have some land that could be developed that we have been able to obtain through developers, or that we have been able to bank or purchase. Over time we know we will develop it, but it will take time, because its really a function of money. But we're getting there, and I think we will get to our 800 at some time.
I think everybody would agree that things like Central Park and the new Aquatic Center are crown jewels, and we're building high-quality parks the same time that we're trying to address the deficit. But we still have a ways to go.
Signal: If there were so few acres of parkland per capita prior to 1987, when the valley was under the county control, was it because the Board of Supervisors wasn't requiring developers to provide enough parkland and is the city demanding more parkland from the developers now?
Gould: It's hard for me to say. I wasn't here at the time, and so I don't mean to dodge your question, but I would tell you that the city is much more aggressive today it terms of demanding from developers and looking for new opportunities to created parkland.
And it doesn't just come from developers, either. It can come from creative ideas that we come up with. If you think about it, Central Park is on land not owned by the city; it's actually owned and leased to us, thankfully, by the Castaic Lake Water Agency for I think $1 a year. Central Park is 80 acres of fabulously developed parkland. We have 50 more acres we can develop there, but we didn't even have to buy that land. We entered into a great partnership with that agency.
But we've also looked to developers, and certainly in the last five years I think the City Council has been very aggressive and very forward-thinking in terms of trying to acquire not only open space but parkland as part of new developments that they're approving. I think the council clearly recognizes that both open space and parkland are critical to what the fabric of our community will be.
One of the last developments that they approved was kind of interesting. It was a development of about 690 acres, yet we were able to obtain about 700 acres of parkland. I realize the math doesn't work, and fortunately I'm no longer in school and have to justify that, but we essentially got donations of undeveloped space in other parts of the city from the applicant, which we were able to cobble together. We end up with a lot more open space and parkland (when) the development is done, and I think that's a really great marriage.
Signal: You're talking about The Newhall Land and Farming Co.'s Riverpark project?
Gould: Riverpark. Exactly.
Signal: And now the city has big plans to acquire even more open space.
Gould: We have been studying this a little while. It actually started many years ago with some council members and it (picked up) some momentum about three years ago. The Parks and Recreation Commission studied it and made a recommendation to the City Council that they explore alternative financing options to try to find ways to pay for parks and recreation so that we weren't constantly in that struggle: Should we have more police? Should we fix that road? Should we have more parks? and try to find out a method to directly finance parks and recreation.
There are a number of models that have been used in the state of California under Proposition 218 that allowed for that type of financing. Through a series of studies and some work on the part of the staff in the city, we have been able to come up with a method that we think works. We've recommended it to the City Council as an option, and the council has recently taken action just last Tuesday (Oct. 13) to approve that type of financing method and ask property owners in the city whether they'd be willing to pay it.
Essentially it's a benefit assessment district. What we'd like to create is an Open Space and Parkland Preservation District, whereas we would ask property owners throughout Santa Clarita whether they'd be willing to spend $25.10 on average per single-family house (per) year to buy more open space, buy more parkland and develop more parks and recreation facilities.
Signal: How did you arrive at the $25.10 figure? Usually when we think of school bonds, they're in the neighborhood of $50 to $100 per year. Is $25.10 per home enough to really do anything?
Gould: Absolutely. I think it will. And you raise a good point. I mean, $25 I probably spent more going to the movies (with) my family, probably twice as much, just last weekend. So we think it's a reasonable cost. I think that's part of how we arrived at it we said, we don't want to go out and ask for something that is unreasonable. We want to make this affordable for people. We want it to be a direct benefit for (them). That's why it's a benefit assessment district.
We did some polling over the last couple of years. The polls clearly told us that the public in Santa Clarita, the property owners, were willing to spend for more parks and recreation facilities and for open space. They do see it as an enhancement of their property values. All studies across the United States will tell you that more parks and open space actually increase your property values. The voters told us they would actually be willing to spend more, but we thought we would settle on a reasonable number that was something that was doable.
In terms of how far that will take us, will it solve all of our problems? Will it get us to 800? Not immediately, no. But we see it as a beginning, and certainly great leverage. Oftentimes when you go to the state and federal government, you can leverage money at the state and federal level if you have a little bit of money of your own. If you don't have the money now, they don't really look at you. You score much higher on grant applications; you certainly get into lawmakers' offices a lot easier if you say: I have a match for that grant.
So we look at the money that we can raise through this open space district as an opportunity to leverage more money and really start to make a dent in the 800-acre parkland deficit.
Signal: Is this the first time the city has attempted to impose a citywide tax?
Gould: I'm not sure of the answer to that. We have it's not a tax. It's a benefit assessment. The real difference is and actually the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association will tell you that, that it is not a tax. What it is, is a benefit assessment.
The difference is, if you and I go to the store today and we spend 20 bucks and we pay our sales tax and the city gets a cent back on every dollar we spend those tax dollars come back into the general fund, and they can really be spent on anything that the city needs to spend it on, whether it's my salary or one of my employees' salaries, or buying more sheriffs for protection, or fixing a road.
In a benefit assessment district, it can only be spent on the purpose for which it was voted on, which is parkland and open space, in this particular case. It is direct benefit for the expenditure. And it's actually tougher to spend this money than it is general tax dollars.
That's why it's a benefit assessment: You directly, as a property owner, will get back some level of benefit for the money that you put in. Your property values will probably go up. You will have better access to parks and recreation facilities.
Signal: Playing devil's advocate, the city is using general fund money right now to do the things the assessment would fund open space acquisition, park maintenance, upgrades to existing parks. If the city has this new assessment, would it use it as an offset and decrease general-fund expenditures on these things?
Gould: No. I have heard this question before, and I think it's a great question to ask, because it's certainly something I myself, as a property owner, will ask when I get to sit down to decide how I am going to vote on this.
The intent of the city at this time is to take that money, which we believe will generate about $1.4 million a year, and use that as debt service to bond for a larger sum of money. We believe we can bond, depending on the bond market, and that's one of the reasons it's so good to do this now interest rates are lower, so the time is ripe.
Signal: Until (last Tuesday) when the Fed raised interest rates a quarter point
Gould: Yeah, till (Tuesday). There are other reasons to do it now, too Land is, you know, they don't make any more of that.
But when we bond for that money and let's say we can raise $25 million to $30 million to begin doing some of the projects we have and buying some of the green belt lands that we have been trying to acquire the restrictions on the bonds will only allow us to spend that $1.4 million on the debt service. We won't be able to redirect it or take away from parks and recreation facilities. Plus, we will have the obligation in the city to continue to operate not only the existing facilities, but (also) any new facilities that we have.
Signal: Is there some kind of guarantee that the money you get through the bond sales will be used only for things over and above what the city is already doing?
Gould: Absolutely. When you bond for that, you have to specify what the money will be used for in terms of projects. So we would identify certain projects that we would spend the money on.
An example might be, let's say you bond for $20 million. We might say $10 million of that is going to go to expanding the Sports Complex the 38 acres next to the Aquatic Center or finishing the rec center at Central Park, those kinds of things. All of the funds are kind of restricted. It's like what I was saying earlier: There are more restrictions on this particular type of money than there (are) even on general tax dollars. So we have to definitely spend it for the purpose that was intended.
Signal: If you have to identify the projects when you bond, have you also identified the projects up-front on the ballot you're sending to homeowners?
Gould: We have not. There are certain we have not done that, intentionally. One of the intents and one of the things the voters told us in the surveys that we did is that they see the opportunity to purchase open space as an opportunity to inhibit some of the growth they see spreading around Santa Clarita.
The last thing we want to do is to name a particular parcel that we would like to acquire so it doesn't get developed. Because the property owner then is simply going to jack up the price of the piece of property to us.
We have to be very smart on how we do this, and at some point after the bond is passed and we start to identify some of the parcels that we think we can go after, we will begin to do that. ... But the last thing I want to do on TV right now is tell you that I want to buy that parcel, because you might want to buy it and
Signal: Make a bunch of money selling it to the city.
Signal: Are you suggesting that the city will be making tactical acquisitions? When it sees a development proposal come along that it doesn't like, the city will try to buy the land out from under it?
Gould: The council has long had a position that they want to acquire green belt around the city. Certainly if you look around the western reaches of the city now, really from the Ventura County line all the way down to (Interstate) 5, on the western side of the 5, the city and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and the county of Los Angeles have been very steady in acquiring parcels that are going to limit development to the west.
There are other areas in city where we would like to accomplish the same thing. The southeastern border of the city, in the areas of Whitney Canyon, Placerita Nature Center, Golden Valley Ranch we would like to acquire more property in there in order to establish a green belt, and really to "keep Santa Clarita whole," I guess is the way to say it.
Signal: Only the people within the city of Santa Clarita pay this $25.10, but the money can be spent on land outside city limits?
Gould: That's correct. And we do something called an engineer's report, (which) assesses whether the benefit is actually coming to you as a property owner, or to me as a property owner. There's a direct correlation (with) that type of a green belt or the initiation of open space or parkland in those areas, we derive a direct benefit not only in terms of raising our property values, but (also) in increasing the aesthetics of the community, allowing places for recreation.
Whitney Canyon is a classic example of that. With the help of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, the city was able to leverage some general fund dollars about $1 million against about $4 million that was made available to us largely through the help of (then-)Assembly Member George Runner, through the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a bond act that they had. In total we were able to spend about $5 million to purchase some of the most pristine canyon land on the southeastern side of the city. That's right at the end of San Fernando Road, for those who haven't been out there. (It's a) gorgeous walk, 442 acres up into some of the most, in my opinion, some of the most beautiful canyons that this valley has to offer.
That's now in public ownership in perpetuity. It won't be developed. I think it originally had a proposed development on that property of 1,000 houses.
Signal: It's been talked about for homes and off-road vehicles and maybe even a landfill.
Gould: Absolutely. But now it's hiking, it's open space, it's just going to be land that's going to be left in its natural state. The oak savannah back there is absolutely gorgeous, and it's parkland. Everybody gets to enjoy it.
Signal: The city and the Conservancy went in together on Towsley Canyon Park, with the city owning 58 acres on the county side of I-5. Considering the little war between the west-side communities and the city over annexation, and the question of whether we'll have one city or two is this a situation where the city wants to buy more open space west of the freeway and surround Stevenson Ranch and Castaic so it's easier to annex them later?
Signal: OK, we'll hold you to that.
Gould: Rivendale Ranch, which was the (58-acre) property you were referring to, is right at the Calgrove exit off the 5, and that was really a cooperative arrangement between the Santa Monica Mountains (Conservancy) and the city. Santa Monica was not in the position to purchase that property at the time that it came available for sale. The city was. And really what it did was, it guaranteed the access into Ed Davis Park and Towsley Canyon and really the larger Santa Clarita Woodlands, which spread that whole ridgeline below Oat Mountain.
But more to the point, you talked a little bit about the county; right now, under the terms of the approval of the Newhall Ranch development, which is 20,000 homes on the west side of I-5, about 6,000 acres of open space had to be dedicated to a joint-powers agreement between the city, the county and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. That joint-powers agreement is in its final stages.
So no, it's not one side against the other. It's all of those parties acting together to preserve the open space, because we understand what the value is.
Signal: How will the voting on the assessment district work? It's not like you go to a polling place and cast a vote
Gould: Right. Since it's a vote of property owners, it is a ballot that will be mailed to all the property owners who own property in the city. And in theory, some of those property owners could be absentee landlords, I guess you might say, maybe a corporation that owns an apartment building or something.
It's a 45-day mailed ballot period. I think the ballots will be mailed on Oct. 7 and they have to be all returned on Nov. 22. ... Then we go through a process of counting them, and I think the results are released on Dec. 13.
It's a ballot where, you and I, as a single-family residence owner, will get a ballot and we will be basically asked: Are you willing to spend $25.10 a year to support this open space district? When those ballots come back, it (requires) 51 percent or 50-percent plus one percent of the voters. If they approve it, then the council has the option to form the district, so we would go back to the council and say: OK, the voters said yes; do you want to do it?
Signal: So when the ballots are returned, will the city have to match them up with the property rolls to make sure the right person is voting? And since it's not a secret ballot, if you vote no, the city will know who you are, right?
Gould: I don't believe we know that at the end. ... I believe when the ballot comes back, I don't think I can check and see how you voted. You can't look and see how I voted. And I'm not supposed to do that anyway. I'm not sure that's the point.
What we obviously will be doing is to see you'll always go back after an election to see who really supported you. We do know, going into it, that about 71 percent of the weighted ballot is in the hands of the single-family residents. Some people have said, well, won't the developers that own large chunks of land be able to control it? And that's not the case. Seventy-one percent of the weighted vote is actually in the hands of single-family residences right now.
Signal: Why the decision just to have property owners vote, instead of everybody, like with a tax?
Gould: I think it came down to that whole benefit assessment thing
Signal: This is technically a landscape and lighting district, right?
Gould: It is under the 1972 Landscape and Lighting District Act. You know, whether you realize it or not, many residents around this city drive around and are beneficiaries of that landscape and lighting act every day and don't realize it. That's because they probably pay into a landscape maintenance district.
As you drive down Valencia Boulevard and McBean Parkway, portions of Soledad Canyon Road, those green medians ... were actually built under that act. The property owners that are adjacent to it are actually paying a small fee, first for the construction and then the maintenance of those, because they get a benefit by beautifying the city that they are driving in. It makes a better community to live in. It, again, increases their property values.
Signal: So this funding mechanism isn't a new thing for the city.
Gould: Absolutely not.
Signal: The city is managing several of these landscape districts; has it formed any?
Gould: Yes, we have. We've formed quite a few. In fact, most new developments in the city have an LMD component to them. I want to say we have something like 46 different landscape maintenance districts in the city already. So this is I'd probably be in trouble with our city treasurer if I said this, but in some respects you could look at this as a citywide (LMD).
Signal: He won't mind.
Gould: He won't mind. You could look at this as a citywide district for open space and parkland, rather than medians and landscape.
Signal: We touched on Rivendale. Our local Indian tribe, the San Fernando Band of Mission Indians, would like to erect a museum there. What's happening?
Gould: I think there has long been an interest on the part of the city in cultural tourism. You look at the Pow Wow at Hart Park, you look at the Cowboy Festival and a variety of different things that we have attempted, I think we have been looking to opportunities to bring cultural tourism and bring visitors to the valley, but also recognize our history and our past.
I did meet with the San Fernando Band of (Mission) Indians last week. They have a preliminary proposal. They are interested in the Rivendale Ranch property. I think probably the biggest constraint that I have is that it's not my land. Rick just doesn't get to say, "This is what I'm going to do with it." I really do need to go out to the public and say, what would you like to do with it?
Signal: No point in trying to grease your palm, then.
Gould: (Laughter.) I propose things to the City Council, but what we would probably do is go through a master planning process where we would sit down and invite the community in and say: What would you like to have there?
The proposal that I saw was a very interesting proposal. I think it has a lot of benefits for the community. If the community supports it, it could happen.
Signal: OK, give us your 30-second pitch for the open space district.
Gould: I can't pitch it. I can only educate you on what the district is all about. My job, every day, is to create parks, programs and community through
Signal: Wait a minute. Isn't the city asking people to do this? Isn't the city the proponent?
Gould: In a way it is the proponent. But as a government employee, I can't say whether it's a good thing or a bad thing. I can't tell you, as a property owner, what to do.
Signal: OK, so you can't pitch it as a government employee. But what would Rick Gould as Joe Average Person say?
Gould: As a property owner, I would look at the benefit that could be derived from the expenditure that I'm being asked to make, and try to weigh whether the $25.10 gives me something that I want for myself, for my family, for my son and his future generations, and for the rest of the community, and try to weigh whether $25.10 was worth what the city is suggesting is the eventually outcome.
Signal: And as Rick Gould the property owner, you have until Nov. 22 to let your intentions to be known.
Gould: That's correct. I'll sign my little ballot and mail it in.
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.