CityWatch, July 26, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 59
RETHINKING LA - The City of LA is almost one month into the first month of its 2011/2012 budget, a $6.9 billion behemoth that exceeds last year’s budget by $150 million and is the largest operating budget in the history of LA. The increase in LA’s budget is a quiet fact that was completely overshadowed by the City Hall budget drama of the last couple of years that has been used to justify significant cuts to city staff and services complemented by increases in fees, permits, fines, and penalties.
During the City Council’s contentious budget hearing earlier in the year, the heads of each city department appeared before the Budget & Finance Committee to defend their department, their staff, and their operating budget. One by one, from the offices of the City Controller and the City Attorney to the departments of Aging and Community Development, the City of LA’s org chart was shaken, squeezed and put through the budget wringer.
The public showed up to defend the city departments that were on the chopping block, arguing vehemently against cuts to the Police Department, the Fire Department, Recreation and Parks, Libraries, Cultural Affairs, Planning, and the many others that deliver the public safety and quality of life city services that Angelenos consider to be essential.
As the hearings progressed, the crowd thinned, and by the time the Neighborhood Councils were on the chopping block, the outcome was a fait accompli, resulting in a 10% reduction in annual budgets and the loss of all rollover funds. This action took place quietly and was complemented by the continued evisceration of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment.
Missing from the exchange was the deafening roar of support from the Police Department, the Fire Department, Recreation and Parks, Libraries, Cultural Affairs, Planning or any of the other departments who enjoyed the support of the neighborhood councils as they defended their budgets and their mandates.
The budget dust settled, neighborhood councils went back to work, rollover funds were swept and the new $40,500 annual budgets were allocated in order to fulfill their City Charter mandated mission “to promote more citizen participation in government and make government more responsive to local needs.”
All of a sudden, the City Family rediscovered their affection for neighborhood councils and department heads came courting their budget buddies, demonstrating the fact that self-preservation has no boundaries.
In a city with a $6.9 billion operating budget, it’s an incredible demonstration of bold egocentrism that motivates a manager of a billion dollar department to ask neighborhood councils for a share of their meager pittance, a reward that can hardly be worth the manager’s time.
And yet the city family sharks circle the neighborhood councils, asking for money to pay for equipment and services that should be paid for with their own budgets.
The city’s budget grew by approximately $150 million this past year, money that funds the delivery of city services that include public safety and public works. Neighborhood councils collectively account for less than $4 million of the city’s $6.9 billion budget, a number that pales in comparison to the $1.2 billion Police Department budget or the $480 million Fire Department budget or the $133 million Transportation budget.
In spite of their limited funds, neighborhood councils still find a way to support the LAPD with volunteers and funding, they still find a way to train and equip volunteers for the LAFD, they continue to pay to clean streets, to pull weeds from sidewalks, to empty trash, to remove graffiti, and they continue to fund median strip improvements, speed humps, Sharrows, and planning outreach.
But, along the way, the burden of that $40,500 budget has distracted the neighborhood councils from their mandate of advising the City of LA on the delivery of City Services and has allowed then to assume responsibility for funding the departments that should be answering to the neighborhood councils.
There is something absurd about the largest departments within the city family shaking down the smallest members. Any financial benefit to the larger department is surely negligible relative to the time and energy it takes to accomplish but the process also reverses the roles, given that neighborhood councils should actually be advising the city departments on their budgets and operations. After all, it’s the City Charter mandate.
The larger absurdity is that City of LA department managers can find the time to chase funds from one pocket to another, foregoing the larger opportunity to perhaps engage in the efficient operation of their department or, even bolder, look for opportunities to engage the public in roles of oversight.
But if the City of Los Angeles is to consider the departmental shake-downs of neighborhood councils appropriate shuffling of city funds, there should be some protocols in place, rules that govern the transference of neighborhood council funds to the operating budgets of city departments:
1) Neighborhood Councils funding should be limited to City Departments that stood up for the neighborhood councils during the City of LA’s Budget Hearings and defended the volunteers who work so hard to fulfill their City Charter mandate of engaging the public in monitoring the delivery of City Services. When the General Managers and Directors of LA’s Departments and Bureaus stand side by side with neighborhood councils as partners, they should feel free to solicit funds for their departments.
2) Neighborhood Councils funding should be limited to City Departments that have Commissions with a seat that is set aside for Neighborhood Council representation. When the Police Commission has an NC seat, the LAPD should feel free to solicit funds for their equipment. When the Rec & Parks Commission opens up an NC seat, RAP should feel free to solicit funds for their programs.
3) Neighborhood Councils funding should be limited to departments that entertain reciprocal requests for funding and services. Of course, this is the way things were supposed to be before they were flipped, one where the neighborhood councils advised the city on the delivery of city services and the departments were actually responsive to the local priorities.
The absurdity of the biggest of the big going after the smallest of the small in order to fund services and supplies is predatory and does nothing to advance LA but simply allows the departments to consume the host.
The missed opportunity through all of this is for the City Family to take its collective eyes of the budgets of other departments and to focus on outside revenue sources that require community support as a key element in qualifying and implementing federal and state money that would go much further in funding city services.
Neighborhood councils are in an ideal position to serve as the funding partners on Office of Traffic Safety funding that would go directly to LAPD staffing and services. The impact of an OTS grant is much more significant that any NC contribution to LAPD office supplies.
Neighborhood councils are best equipped to conduct the outreach necessary to qualify for funds such as the CA Statewide Park Program that funded the creation of parks in underserved communities. The impact of a $5 million grant far outweighs the negligible benefit of a neighborhood council contribution for RAP outreach materials.
Neighborhood councils are perfect partners for the Transportation Department as the City of LA goes after Safe Routes to School funding, money that can be put to work improving the sidewalks and streets of our neighborhoods. The impact of proactive teamwork has the potential to deliver millions of dollars to our streets which far outperforms the current meager contributions that are made in desperate attempts to “prime the pump” and motivate a reticent department.
It’s time that City Hall and the city departmental leadership recognize neighborhood councils as partners in engaging the public in the civic process, as partners in departmental oversight and accountability, and as partners in great funding that supports the delivery of city services.
(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net.)