Tuesday, March 23, 2010

CityWatchLA - Talkin’ Budget with the Mayor: My Personal Story

CityWatch, Mar 23, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 23

"A Seat at the Table!" Long the battle cry of neighborhood council Mayor’s Budget Advocates who have fought hard for the right to participate in the City’s process … balancing the city's budget while prioritizing the delivery of city services and engaging the public in the journey. Along came the Mayor's Budget Day (Mar 13) and approximately 70 NC reps spent a Saturday morning with Deputy Mayor Ceja and CAO Santana, reviewing the Mayor's Budget survey results and the Mayor's Budget.

This representative body then broke up into groups based on planning areas, discussed budget priorities, and then elected Budget Advocates who would take those recommendations to the Mayor.

I was honored to be selected as one of the 14 Budget Advocates, elected to represent the Central Planning Area along with Scott Bytof of the Downtown LA NC. When we arrived at City Hall last week to meet with the Mayor's staff in preparation for our Budget Presentation to the Mayor we found that there were lots of chairs, an abundant number of chairs. Finally, our day had come and we had the proverbial seat at the table!

Well, almost. When we showed up at City Hall last Wednesday to meet with the Mayor's staff for the planning meeting, the chairs were abundant but the table was lacking in size. Next time we'll have to remember to ask for "A Seat at the Big Table!"

One would think that the host would be able to match the number of invitees with the number of seats and then match that with a table large enough to hold both the attendees and the requisite chairs but such was not the case. After much milling about and moving of furniture, two more tables were put into service and a replay of the "furniture power" debates of the Paris Peace Talks was narrowly averted.

In past years, the Budget Advocates have presented "consensus priorities" for the Mayor's Budget but the intensity of this year's budget crisis seemed to warrant a more robust presentation of priorities and recommendations and the "single item" focus approach fell by the wayside.

With less than a week to prepare, the Budget Advocates put together a program that offered a wide variety of representative voices to be heard on the issues that impact us all. Prepped and repped, we returned to City Hall this past Friday to meet with the Mayor and to present our budget recommendations.

Well, again, almost. In spite of the fact that there were three city staff members handling the 14 advocates (20+% ratio and we're in a budget crisis?) the City Hall bureaucracy doesn't seem to have a knack for planning or for learning from missteps. This simple example might be an anomaly or it might be an indicator of a systemic behavioral flaw.

Based on results, often harsh but always fair, City Hall's inability to staff appropriately, plan effectively, allocate resources efficiently and match performance with desired outcome seems to be a pattern that impacts everything from simple meetings to the big-picture issues of a balanced budget and the efficient delivery of city services.

So it is that the people of Los Angeles find themselves, backs against the wall and hands in the air, faced with the impossible demand "Your libraries or your parks!"

Our meeting with the Mayor went well. Co-chairs Dr. Dan Wiseman and Doug Epperhart guided the highly motivated team with great diplomacy, Ron Galperin set the tone with an optimistic call for innovation in governance and Scott Bytof closed with a simple commitment of partnership.

Along the way, Shawn Simons presented an evolved plan for the Department of Empowerment, Ginger Damon addressed opportunities to reduce costs, and Ernesto Arias called for a commitment to the delivery of community services.

The recurring message was that any efforts to balance the budget must take place with an equal commitment to the delivery of services, based on the understanding that the purpose of the city is not to serve as an employment agency but to provide Public Safety, Public Health, Public Works, and Public Service. These are not just options, they are the essential elements of a Great City.

As for the Central Planning Area, there are many budget issues that came up on Budget Day and again in the planning sessions, all of which resulted in the drafting and approval of the following guiding principles that should be used to "script" the critical decisions that must be made in the immediate future and over the long haul.

1) Honor the Charter - Protect Charter Departments over Ordinance Departments. Eliminate redundancies, inefficiencies, confusion, and city family competition by consolidating Ordinance Departments into Charter Departments. Use the City Charter as a guide for pursuing the Great City commitment it represents.

2) Public Private Partnerships - Investigate rigorously, avoiding short-term financial gain opportunities that come at the expense of the constituents who use those services, at the expense of the city’s assets, and at the expense of long-term revenue streams. Consider the opportunities that non-profits and academic organizations offer as partners in the delivery of services.

3) Invest in Infrastructure - Avoid short term and ineffective maintenance/repairs of the City’s Infrastructure, instead commit to the substantial prioritization of an investment in the future.

4) Community Redevelopment Agency - Draw the CRA into a robust relationship with the City of Los Angeles, evaluate the financial relationship, and embrace a partnership in funding, in revenue, in budget accountability, and in budget responsibility.

5) City Pensions - Evaluate and re-evaluate the City of Los Angeles pensions program for budget savings. (including health care liabilities and contributions)

The process for preparing the Mayor's Budget is a year-long journey and the City Charter specifies that it is due by April 20. This doesn't leave much time for the feedback and advice from the Mayor's Budget Day and the Budget Advocates to be included, especially if the Mayor's proposed budget is delivered early, as promised.

This means that the most recent engagement by the neighborhood councils isn't the conclusion of the budget process but is actually the beginning of the long-term budget advocacy journey.

Now, more than ever, it is imperative that the people of Los Angeles step up and communicate clearly their priorities for balancing the budget and prioritizing the delivery of services. Now is the time to join together to make Los Angeles a Great City that Works!

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate, is a Budget Rep for the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net)

No comments: