Tuesday, July 20, 2010

LA Needs a Budget that Sustains

CityWatch, July 20, 2010
Vol 8 Issus 57


Festivals offer an insightful glimpse into the traditions of a culture, revealing much about the people and their character. In Spain, the brave gather in Pamplona for the Running of the Bulls while in Japan the Cherry Blossom Festival brings families together. Munich's Oktoberfest offers celebrants massive amounts of beer, food, and song while the Pushkar Festival in India provides participants the opportunity to wash their sins away in the holy lake. Festivals vary in length, ranging from single day events such as the Waikiki Spam Jam to week long events such as the Snake River Stampede  to the Taste of Chicago which spans two weeks and includes the Independence Day Celebration. There are some sporting events such as the World Cup, the Tour de France and the Olympics  that last for weeks but they all pale in comparison to Los Angeles and its Budget Crisis, a festival that is celebrated year after year with the same faithful crowd filling City Council Chambers for the ceremonial evisceration of the future of Los Angeles.

LA's annual Budget Crisis Festival begins with the release of the Mayor's proposed budget. Neighborhood Council representatives are invited to City Hall for a ceremonial selection of Budget Advocates and then the Mayor convenes a meeting of Department Heads, Commissioners, Diplomats, and Donors, where City Officials explain the City Budget in ancient languages that may include Bureaucrat, Politico, Non Sequitur, Fortran, and Sanskrit.

The supplicants murmur amongst themselves at the somber moments and applaud vigorously at the moments of optimism and confidence. Then everybody congratulates anyone within backslapping reach before heading back to the office where resumes are updated, bad news is Tweeted, and Facebook profiles are updated.

The City's Budget Crisis Festival of 2010 was the biggest in the Villaraigosa's era. City Council Budget Committee members donned the official Budget Crisis "casual wear" to signify their willingness to grapple with the big numbers, meetings went long and for a couple of months, there was nothing else to talk about.

The Budget Crisis affected everybody, from the city staff who trim the trees to the senior citizens who gather for lunch at the rec centers. Members of the public turned out day after day to defend City Departments ranging from Cultural Affairs to Disability.

Through it all, the Mayor and the CAO kept reminding the public that the choice was between  "Public Safety and Public Service" and the public accepted the false dichotomy.

City Staff were sacrificed on the ERIP altar, City Departments were offered up as offerings to the Budget Gods, City Services were jettisoned, all in a last-ditch attempt to keep the largest city in the most populated state in the most powerful country in the world afloat for another year. All this excitement plus the public enjoyed increases in fees, fines, and penalties!

Unlike the Mud Festival, LA Tomatina, Burning Man, and other Festivals that feature climactic endings, LA's Budget Crisis Festival is best known for ending with a whimper. By the end of the City Council Budget Committee hearings, only the intrepid continued to participate, most people having given up on the charade of public participation and having long ago set off for the fire sale.

Somehow the dire predictions of bankruptcy and the debates over the layoffs of thousands have fallen by the wayside and those in charge of the coffers have cobbled together a budget that enabled the City Council and the Mayor to abide by the Charter. This may satisfy the letter of the law but it falls short of their mandate to improve the quality of life for the people of LA and to lead the City of LA into the future as a Great City.

This must change.

LA needs a Budget that Sustains, one that is based on a long-term commitment to a vision of connectivity and a plan that endures. LA must break the reactive Budget Crisis cycle by embarking on the budget journey and it must start now.

1) Connectivity - The City of LA has many departments that play a powerful role in the development and implementation of an effective city budget yet they work independently. The current budget strategy encourages silo behavior and has allowed the Proprietaries (DWP-Port-LAX) to develop their own gravitational pull while the Charter Departments struggle to maintain their autonomy and Ordinance Departments compete for staffing, funding, and relevance.

Any promise of a Vision and of a Plan will become a reality when the Budget process supports active solutions. Departmental competition must stop and the Mayor's Budget must be developed with a commitment to connectivity of purpose, of process, and of procedure. LA will do more with less if the budget is developed with connectivity as the driving force.

2) Durability - City Planning is a marathon endeavor, not a sprint, and yet each year the Budget Crisis stirs a mad dash as sofas are searched and nickels are rubbed, all in an effort to stave off the inevitable. Los Angeles will take its place as a Great City when the budget process supports long term planning with a financial commitment that keeps the focus on the future.

The City's General Plan will be a meaningful document only when it is supported by a City Budget that funds the city services and infrastructure improvements based on the priorities in articulated in the Plan. When cultural affairs, urban forestry, parks, libraries, social services, and neighborhood councils go up on the chopping block, the quality of life in the community is threatened and the downward spiral continues, budget crisis after budget crisis.

3) Sustainability - Budget solutions that consist of raising fees for basic municipal services such as water and power and garbage collection are short sighted and regressive. Increasing fees, fines, and penalties will aid in postponing the inevitable but they are not sustainable budget solutions.

Los Angeles goes to the same funding sources as other local cities but comes home with less than the others and then fails to implement. From Emergency Preparedness funding to Transportation funding to Safe Routes to School grants, the City of LA competes with itself, performs poorly and then blames the system.

A long-term commitment to the implementation of funded programs would put the city staff to work, invigorate the economy, and fulfill a long-term commitment to improving the quality of life in the community.

4) Accountability - Several months ago, I was honored to be selected as one of the 14 (2 per Planning Area) Neighborhood Council Budget Advocates. We met with the Mayor, we offered our insight and recommendations and we enjoyed access to the Mayor's office.

We met twice a month at City Hall, we met in the community to grapple with the details. We wrangled and we wrestled and we asked the hard questions. But most of all we waited. Some of the simplest answers are still "on the way!"

A budget that even the CAO's office and Mayor's staff can't explain is simply a haystack, neatly bound and ready for the shelf. That must change so that the people of LA can hold on to the City Budget as a tool for improving efficiency and effectiveness and performance in the City of Los Angeles.

LA's City Budget is more than a simple accounting task that enables the city bureaucracy to pass Go, it's a living breathing contract between the people of LA and City Hall. It's a plan for bringing LA's vision to life, for improving the quality of life, for engaging in the business of operating a Great City.

To that end, the process must be open, it must be ongoing, it must include the public and it must result in a living, breathing document that the people of LA can rely on as a roadmap to the future.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at   Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net.This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)

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