Speaker's Commission
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Fairness of private funds for public services at issue
by Laura Mecoy
Bee Los Angeles Bureau

(Published Dec. 20, 1999)

LOS ANGELES -- When Bel Air and Holmby Hills residents wanted to raise money to repair their local fire station, they didn't wash cars or sell baked goods.

They just asked their famous neighbors -- actor Leonard Nimoy, former model Cheryl Tiegs and radio personality Casey Kasem -- to donate autographed items for a silent auction and the rest of the wealthy community to make cash contributions.

"We are blessed to have the resources and the people with talent who can make it happen," said Russ Alben, a Bel Air marketing consultant who helped organize the successful fund drive for Fire Station 71.

From the firehouse to the sheriff's office, California's public agencies have increasingly turned to private donors to meet the state's growing needs in the wake of tax-slashing Proposition 13.

But when affluent residents can dig deeper into their pockets, some critics claim this growing reliance on private funds will inevitably lead to the rich getting better public services than the poor.

"The bottom line is: Do the wealthy deserve better fire protection? The answer is no," said George Burke, International Association of Fire Fighters spokesman. "Everyone deserves the same fire protection."

Burke also complained that private contributions "take the city off the hook" to pay for those services and questioned what public agencies will do when the donations dry up.

Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Feuer represents the affluent west side of Los Angeles, where five communities have raised money for their firehouses in the last two years. He said he also worries that fund-raising solicitations could make residents believe their police and fire protection depends on how much they give.

"I have very strong views that the fundamental repairs of any public facility should be financed by the public," he said.

But a $744 million bond measure for upgrading and replacing Los Angeles police and fire stations failed in April, and he said the city doesn't have the money for the needed repairs.

"I am very troubled by what appears to be a very pervasive shortage of funds to pay for services which all of us historically have taken for granted," Feuer said.

Schools led the way in making up for shortages with private dollars. Most wealthy districts lost money after a 1971 U.S. Supreme Court ruling required many states to redistribute tax revenues to ensure public schools in poorer areas get the same funding as those in more affluent communities.

Proposition 13 forced even further reductions in tax dollars for all California schools. But those in wealthier areas were often able to make up for more of their losses because they could raise more money.

"Private contributions can throw the notion of equity in school funding out of whack, especially if one district has large corporations that can raise several hundred thousand dollars while another school district has a bake sale that can only raise $54," said Mary Fulton, policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States.

The differences can be seen in Northern California, where the nonprofit San Francisco Education Fund enjoys a $7 billion endowment while Sacramento City Unified School District's foundation is such "small potatoes" that it primarily serves as a conduit for contributions from other organizations, said Gayle McKnight, assistant to the Sacramento foundation's board.

Kathy Turner, the San Francisco fund's executive director, said she's troubled by the disparities between districts. But she pointed out that groups like hers, which distribute money throughout a school district, can make sure that rich and poor schools in the district enjoy the same advantages.

Fulton said attempts to remedy these disparities have led to an outcry for more public funding and concerns that private dollars will dry up if they're distributed beyond the local community.

The policy analyst also pointed out that elected officials have little incentive to change the current system because private contributions take the heat off them to come up with the cash for needed services.

The Los Angeles Police Department, for instance, created a foundation 18 months ago to solicit money for "extras." Then it spent $10,000 for an item usually bought with tax dollars -- blankets the bomb squad uses when it blows up suspicious packages.

"We don't want to make a habit of purchasing things like that through the foundation so that they (city officials) come to count on it," police Cmdr. David Kalish said. "But the blankets are real expensive, and we didn't have the money in the budget for them."

In Beverly Hills, one of the wealthiest education foundations in the state gives about $400,000 a year to teacher salaries.

"Beverly Hills schools get the same amount of (public) funding as everybody else," said Don Creamer, the Beverly Hills Education Foundation's president. "By funding the teachers from the foundation, it allows us to have a few extras -- like more advanced-placement classes in the high school."

But in Manhattan Beach, another pricey Los Angeles suburb, the education foundation's board insists its donations go to extras -- such as instrumental music classes and a high school television station.

The expectations are much the same in the growing Elk Grove Unified School District, where Superintendent Dave Gordon said tax dollars "cover the basics."

PTA Council President Joyce Krula said the parent, teacher and student associations contribute about $168,000 for field trips, assemblies and other "extras."

The district is also trying to raise $250,000 in donations for an institute to train Japanese-speaking teachers, which would give students the "competitive advantage" of learning to speak Japanese, said Gordon.

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