You Get What You Pay For

By Sandra Gonzalez

Six years ago, the city of Pico Rivera, Calif., was similar to many Los Angeles suburbs—the working-class population had a high Hispanic demographic and a list of demands as to what residents expected from the city. The parks and facilities were tired and worn, the athletic fields were overused, and there was no funding to implement major capital improvements. With just over 100 acres encompassing its nine local parks, literally hundreds of people used the parks every day. Without some type of structural increase to its revenue, Pico Rivera would have to shut down recreational programs, close the community pool, 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 would raise the sales tax from 8.25 percent to 9.25 percent.  

Against The Odds
Measure P was expected to preserve public safety and community programs and also prevent significant cuts to essential services by funding general city services. These were to include hiring additional police; maintaining anti-gang and graffiti efforts; providing youth and after-school parks and recreation services; expanding the library and parks; fixing city streets; and contributing to 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 older parks.

But another 1-percent increase in statewide sales taxes meant that this blue-collar city of 63,000 people would pay the highest rate in the state, and one of the steepest in the nation. In all, it meant Pico Rivera sales taxes would climb from 8.25 percent to 10.75 percent over a 3-month period.

On the surface, this might be a ridiculous notion. Sales tax makes everything more expensive. Why would hard-working families choose to pay more money each time they went shopping? Furthermore, would this cause the residents to drive a few miles into a neighboring city simply to avoid the high sales tax?

All Hands On Deck
The community rallied. A group of residents in favor of the tax opened a small office and began walking door to door in the neighborhoods to inform the community of the benefits of Measure P. As expected, citizens had questions and concerns. But without the tax increase, residents would be affected by cuts in recreational programming and public-works services. Citizens understood the importance of maintaining the same level of services to which they had become accustomed.

City employees knew that the city would have a difficult time getting back on its feet if the measure was defeated.  Parks and Recreation and Public Works full-time staff members were challenged with gaining support from hourly employees. The grassroots campaign required all employees to help with evening rallies and phone campaigning. Supervisor Lupe Aguilar, who had been with the department for more than 35 years, spearheaded the employee charge.

“Nothing was easy about this campaign,” Aguilar admits. “It was difficult getting staff from the various city departments to assist with weekend sign distribution, and door-to-door marketing.”

In the end, the employees, too, took up the cause, using their personal time away from work to become involved and engage community groups, churches, unions, and the chamber of commerce.

Although some merchants were against the proposal because it might hurt their bottom line, Measure P passed with an overwhelming majority.

Fast Forward To 2014
Thanks to the actions taken by the community, the city now boasts a beautiful, 16,000-square-foot, LEED-certified county library, and $20 million in major park renovations, including state-of-the-art ball fields, playgrounds, and a football stadium.

“Never underestimate the power of strong leadership and the voice of a community,” Aguilar says.

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

Across the state, 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 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, Calif. Reach her at sgonzalez@pico-rivera.org.