City Moves Toward Decision on Future of Recreation Dept.

City Manager Marcella Marlowe will begin preparing a strategic plan to implement recommended changes to the city’s Recreation Department, including cost estimates to make the facility improvements necessary for a fully licensed preschool program to be run in the Stoneman School.
Marlowe also has been tasked with having the necessary work done to bring the facility, which houses virtually the entire Recreation Department, up to fire code as mandated by Fire Chief Mario Rueda. The City Council gave her $50,000, for the moment, to do so but will require her to come before the council if an individual contract for that work exceeds $30,000.
The decision last week was the natural next step after a council-appointed blue ribbon committee made its recommendations for the beleaguered department after analyzing it for several months. Only Councilwoman Gretchen Shepherd Romey voted against forming the strategic plan, citing a need to figure out what the city truly had with the Stoneman School first.
“I would like to stick to the priorities,” she said. “I want the city manager to stick to those priorities: things that benefit the community first. I’m worried that we’re spending time and money and that when we do this, we’re agreeing to [the preschool] happening.”
That statement highlighted a big point of contention among council members — whether even to continue operating its current preschool, much less seek a fully licensed one. Shepherd Romey and Councilman Ken Ude have both expressed concern about the liabilities a school creates for the city and disappointment that the current school, along with other programs in the department, draws mostly nonresident participation.
Mayor Steve Talt, in leading the charge for Marlowe’s new task, emphasized that nothing would be done without the City Council’s wishes and that accepting or rejecting the preschool could be as simple as looking at the price tag Marlowe presents.
“I do believe whether we move forward — and to what degree we move forward — with the preschool is dependent on other things, including the cost to bring things up to date at Stoneman,” Talt said. “My moving forward with asking [Marlowe] to create a strategic plan dealt with along the same lines of what’s recommended in the committee report.”
The committee — composed of residents John Chou, Jennifer Chuang, Anna Grizzel, Liz Hollingsworth and Brady Onishi, who worked with Talt and Ude — presented its recommendations at last week’s City Council meeting, outlining what it believes will be an effective operational structure for the Recreation Department, which has suffered from the perception that it is a money pit. Although some residents have gone as far as calling for its abolition, the most vocal group has pleaded with city officials to keep the department, lauding it for its community-building programming and for helping young working parents find a safe place for their children during weekdays.
The committee’s recommendations included refining department leadership, creating and using strategic and operating plans, focusing programming based on a suggested pyramid of priorities, following a new financial framework and addressing the Stoneman facility needs.
These recommendations were based on the key issues identified by the committee, which were that department heads have never been tasked with the necessary leadership roles to run what is effectively a small business; the balance between costs and benefit to the community is off; the focus on cost-recovery has historically been too high; financial information on programs was not readily available; data collection regarding participation has been weak; and the department lacks a long-range plan.
Specific recommendations included keeping the preschool programming and even expanding it, not least because it has managed to be one of the few profitable programs while also having the lowest resident participation.
“Education is central to the identity of San Marino, and I think it starts at birth,” Chuang explained. “Certainly it’s in our interest to promote high-quality programs that then feed into the high-quality public schools that weave into the fabric of San Marino.
“I think this is reflective of the current structure of the preschool program just not meeting the needs of San Marino parents,” she continued, elaborating on the low resident participation. “It’s a good preschool. I was impressed by the teachers and the classrooms. They do their best to create safe and loving environments.”
The committee supported attaining full licensing for the program, which it said helps San Marino parents have more flexibility to contribute to the school system and community.
“Being unlicensed really creates severe operational limits and liabilities toward maximizing the potential of that program,” Chuang said. “This would also allow you to charge more and generate more revenue for the Recreation Department.”
In the financial realm, Onishi said the committee recommended the city dedicate 1% of its tax base to operating the department, which should strive to break even each year. The committee also suggested raising the fees of both residents and nonresidents to align more with the market of such public programs.
Onishi added that the department should make use of more data to help it run more like businesses, including those gleaned from customer service surveying, participation tracking and demographic analysis.
“The data we were asking for wasn’t there,” he explained. “They weren’t able to really look at what’s going on with the business in the detail required to steer the
department in the direction most beneficial to it.”
The full detailed committee report
can be found on the homepage at cityofsanmarino.org.

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