Friday, March 25, 2011

CityWatchLA - After Years of Budget Rehearsal, Time Now for LA’s Mayor and Council to Act

CityWatch, Mar 25, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 24

It’s Budget Season in the City of LA and the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) has fired the first shot, declaring this the “age of permanent fiscal crisis" and subtly shifting blame for the city’s budget crisis from the captain and crew of the good ship Los Angeles and placing it firmly on the turbulent seas that lead us to the iceberg. (Link) Miguel Santana’s 219 page report acknowledges LA’s 14.4% unemployment rate and a projected budget deficit for 2011-12 of $350 million, but softens the message by pointing out that the federal, state, county and surrounding municipalities are also in dire straits, “struggling to find ways to fund even the most basic programs and services the public expects.”

This message of normalcy may be diplomatic but it’s not quite accurate. While the economic storm is turbulent for everybody, the City of LA is faring worse than the others that sail the same seas. It is imperative that the CAO address the emergency with the sense of urgency that it deserves or the City Council will simply continue to hide crew and pet projects in the DWP’s stateroom.

To Santana’s credit, his message has been and is consistent with his goal of a long term balanced budget based on a framework of four strategies: Responsible Management and Fiscal Practices, Focus on Core Services, Alternative Service Delivery Models, and Maintaining a Sustainable Workforce.

Complementing the CAO’s report and call to action comes the Neighborhood Council Budget Advocates and their recommendations for the Mayor as he prepares to release the Mayor’s Budget on April 20 to the City Council. The NCBA’s presentation also consisted of four strategies: Increasing Efficiency, Generating Revenues, Structural Changes, and Reducing Expenses. (Link) [[[

Both the CAO and the NCBA’s agree that escalating pension and health care costs are responsible for driving the city’s budget up by more than 50% over the last decade, a period of time in which the size of the actual workforce has declined.

This unsustainable business model has reached the crisis point and it is incumbent on the Mayor and the City Council to forgo the “Wait it out!” strategy of past years and to address the situation as an actual crisis that demands a comprehensive and systemic commitment to a long term solution.

Missing from the CAO’s report and the NCBA’s recommendations is any mention of the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) and the $1.3 Billion that was just shuffled from one stateroom to another. The Budget Advocates addressed the CRA last year but apparently the CRA is off the radar this year. This is hardly consistent with the “Everything is on the table!” mantra the public hears when the budget scythe comes whacking at the community gardens.

Through it all, there appears to be movement in the ongoing discussions between City Hall and the unions, at least some of them. As of yesterday, the Coalition of LA City Unions has reached a tentative agreement that is touted as “a major deal that could save LA $400 million over the next four years, resulting in the suspension of furloughs and the need to lay off 600 employees.”

The Coalition of LA City Unions represents about ⅓ of LA’s union workforce and as they take the deal back to membership for a vote, the potential for this Mayoral press conference victory party to resonate throughout the City of LA workforce is significant.

Meanwhile, there is much budget balancing work to be done.

This is the fourth year in a row that the Mayor and City Council have allowed LA to drift through the budget crisis.

Santana’s recommendations are painful, they offer highs and lows of projected impacts, all of which are dependent on some hard commitments and some even harder choices. At the end of the day, they offer a choice between barely balancing the budget for the short term to balancing for the long term and replenishing the reserve. All that’s missing is the resolve to do it.

The Mayor and City Council don’t need to hunt any further for budget solutions, they have the CAO’s report, they have the Budget Advocate recommendations, and they have grassroots support for decisive action.

What they lack is the ability to let go of the ill-conceived hope that the economy will flourish, the seas will go calm, the iceberg will melt, and we’ll all sail off into the sunset.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at:

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