California ingenuity finds ways to ease bind of Proposition 13

So you want to make a donation to charity -- maybe volunteer a few hours of your time to some worhty cause? You might not have to look any farther than your local city hall.

At least that's what a growing number of Californians have found. Faced with the slash in taxpayer revenues wrought by Proposition 13, many of the Golden State's 422 cities have found a bit of post-tax revolt truth in the old adage, "necessity is the mother of invention."

Although a nearly $4 billion state surplus helped ease local governments through the first two years of "Prop. 13"-imposed budget cuts, many cities still were forced to look for new ways of cutting back and finding revenues. And with a proposed $240 million cutback in the approximately $6 billion cities had expected to receive in the coming fiscal year, cost-cutting quests have intensified.

Communities are finding ways -- some ingenious, some obvious -- of making up gaps in programs and services causes by the cutback in available funds. Though experts point out that the loss of consistently funded programs manned by skilled workers cannot be entirely made up for through voluntarism, they admit that donors and volunteers can at least help ease effects of belt-tightening. Community spirit and cohesiveness often is enhanced in the process.

Among the more novel responses to Prop. 13:

* Four months ago, some 10,000 Menlo Park residents found a different type of mail-order catalog in their mailboxes -- a Community Gifts Catalog, full of tax-deductible ways to help their San Francisco Bay Area city cope in the era of shrinking budgets.

For a mere $10, for example, civic-minded citizens can "buy" learning aids like books and puzzles for community child-care programs. a donation of $25 will pay for a new tree in the local park, or help finance a barbecue pit or park bench. Big spenders can, for $100, buy a "free swim" day at a community pool for Menlo Park children.

So far, says Mary Leydon, the city's director of community resources, the community has received almost $20,000. Already, she says, plans are under way for next year's catalog.

"This was a real nice way of people being able to specify how they want their money spent," she says. "It's clear that people are willing to give money to the city, but only for things they want."

* Chula Vista, near San Diego, began a program in 1979 under which more than 100 citizens have pitched in at City Hall, doing everything from developing photos in the police department's crime lab to digging through 70 year's accumulation of city resolutions and preparing them for binding.

In 1979 and 1980, volunteers accounted for nearly 6,000 hours of work annually, according to Signe Thorsen, the city's director of personnel.

Although many volunteers help out only on a temporary basis, a core of approximately 30 citizens are City Hall "regulars" -- augmenting, but not replacing, paid municipal employees, she says.

* Five years ago, before the advent of Prop. 13, Martinez and Pleasant Hill, two neighboring northern California cities, took a look at the cost of data processing systems and decided that sharing a system under a "joint powers authority" was the best way to go. Such authorities, usually set up for one specific need, are not uncommon.

But Pleasant Hill and Martinez have taken the concept several steps farther. Faced with rising costs and declining revenues, the two cities --each with a population of about 23,000 -- have moved recently to share a number of services, including a city attorney, medical insurance, and transportation for the elderly and handicapped. Now they are considering a joint purchasing agreement.

* One southern California city has found it can cut its utility bills by 15 percent by running City Hall on a four-day, 10-hour-a-day workweek. Another has set up a nonprofit parks and recreation foundation which raised $100,000 in one year for the city's parks and leisure programs. Other cities have found that something as simple as using a growth retardant on municipal greens can save $15 ,000 a year in labor and maintenance costs.

Despite these initiatives, however, some municipal activists warn that the coming end of the state's so-called "bail-out" fund augurs even leaner times.

"The ingenuity of the cities is going to be put to a real test," says Mark Kaiser, executive assistant of the Southwest Innovation Group, which helps cities in the region utilize new management techniques and equipment. "There's only so much you can do by sleight of hand."

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