Cleaning Up the Town
By Eddie Rivera
As the latest Sunland-Tujunga cleanup kicked off this past weekend, it enjoyed the singular distinction of being one community activity local residents could actually agree on.
The almost-unanimous recognition has been largely through the work of Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council (STNC) Region 2 Representative Gail J. Carlson, who has led the cleanup effort partly though her own Facebook page, which she created after being selected to lead the council’s Cleanup and Beautification Committee (CUB). The fast-growing group now boasts more than 200 community members.
“I made a motion at our July STNC board meeting that we really need to clean up this community. There is simply too much trash, graffiti, and just a lack of trees and beauty in other places,” said Carlson.
“I asked who wanted to do something to refresh our town,” she continued, “and the board all voted to start a clean up and beautification committee.” Carlson was the natural pick to head up the committee.
Region 2 is one of four areas in the STNC. It runs from Mt. Gleason to Big Tujunga Canyon, up to Seven Hills, down Commerce Avenue, and west on Foothill. It includes the Elks Lodge, Verdugo Hills High School, and Howard Finn Park, where last weekend’s group met to begin the cleanup, which concentrated on Foothill Boulevard.
“I have only been on the board since April,” said Carlson, “but I believe that there is proof that trees, artistic works, and clean streets make people happy, want to shop, and be more involved locally. We have too many wayward shopping carts, not enough trees, and too much apathy, and I want to change that.”
A few observers have, however, pointed out the irony of unpaid volunteers doing the work of paid council staff, in a task for which the council has a budget in place.
But Carlson opts for a more positive approach.
“I say, ‘Why keep waiting for our paid officials to do something? Do something if it bothers you, like encouraging children to recycle in the home, for example. We can teach others to do the right thing, to call Graffiti Busters and 311, when they see a problem. If people give a few hours for Tujunga, it may lead to others paying it forward,” she said, adding, “The City of LA is broke, so we are kinda on our own up here.”
For his part, LA City Councilman Felipe Fuentes, whose District 7 includes Sunland-Tujunga, provided staff, volunteers, and supplies for the cleanup. He worked at the cleanup too.
“I enjoy working with and supporting all community groups who are interested in cleanups or other community beautification projects. I’m excited to be collaborating with the Sunland Tujunga Neighborhood Council’s Beautification Committee on a community cleanup.
“I will continue to work with Council District 7’s community partners to clean up our neighborhoods, because clean neighborhoods are safe neighborhoods,” Fuentes said.
But the question is open as to whether or not the City is “broke” and unable to afford a consistent community cleanup effort.
Much of the argument for citizen participation has been centered on the idea that the City cannot provide local cleanup help because of budget restrictions. But over the past three years, the City has received millions of new dollars in “boomerang funds” following the abolition of redevelopment agencies through the state.
A 2013 report by the California Department of Finance revealed that the City of Los Angeles received nearly $81.7 million over the past two years from the statewide closure of its redevelopment districts.
In fact, about 70 of LA County’s 88 cities received redevelopment money because of projects within their boundaries. Property tax revenues that were collected in these various project areas are now being returned to cities across the state.
According to LA Assistant City Administrative Officer Ben Ceja, the actual total is closer to $105 million, as the City continues to receive revenue from projects that were in the works when the redevelopment agencies were abolished.
In a May 2014 report, then City Manager Jan Perry projected that $48 million in these boomerang funds would be available to the City for the 2014-15 fiscal year budget, bringing the anticipated deficit for the current fiscal year to zero.
At the same time, councilmembers Mitch O’Farrell and Gil Cedillo have formally suggested that a dedicated portion of the boomerang funds be dedicated to affordable housing and economic development.
Whether those funds would translate into more City services, including neighborhood cleanups, has yet to be seen.
“To date, the boomerang funds have been utilized by the City as a funding gap to balance the citywide budget,” the councilmembers said in a report to the City’s Economic Workforce and Development Department.
“While a very strong argument can be made that the boomerang funds can and should be part of the solution to the City’s structural deficit, it is recommended that the solution not be to use them as gap funding every year when there is a budget deficit, but rather as a source of investment that will secure permanent increased revenue to the General Fund over time.
“Forty years of studies have proven that public investment in economic development and infrastructure leads to higher productivity and living standards. This investment, when made, equates directly to increased sales, utility user and property tax revenue for the City,” the report added.
Meanwhile, Carlson is enthusiastic about the help provided by both Fuentes and State Assembly member Raul Bocanegra (39th District).
Added Carlson, “Wesly Hernandez [area director for Fuentes’s Sunland-Tujunga district office] is at all (STNC) board meetings.
“He’s jumped onboard with all the things I have been working on: the cleanups, the tree plantings on Foothill, as well as the Department of Transportation [DOT] electrical-box mural-art projects,” said Carlson.
The DOT mural-art project is ongoing, and local artists are encouraged to provide sketches for the street signal boxes along Foothill Boulevard. According to Carlson, the deadline for design ideas is November 1. Winning designs will be chosen by the CUB Committee and the STNC board.
The selected locations and designs then will be sent to Fuentes, who will forward the information to the DOT. The DOT will have final approval on locations and designs.
The artists will be asked to provide their own paint and materials. More information is available at stnc.org.
Two more community cleanups are scheduled for later this year, on October 18 and November 15, according to Carlson.