CityWatch, Jan 6, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 2
RETHINKING LA - The City of LA’s ongoing budget crisis has allowed a triage mentality to permeate throughout City Hall, framing the ongoing debate over our future in the negative and conditioning the public to focus on what they can give up rather than what they want.
Each year the Mayor’s office gathers with neighborhood council representatives to solicit feedback on the Mayor’s Budget, a process that typically starts with “Where can we cut City Services in order to balance the budget?” and concludes with “Well, we had no choice!”
Along the way, the public is re assured that the decimation of city departments and the continued restriction of city services are inevitable and acceptable, after all, “We’re in the middle of an economic meltdown and it’s not our fault.”
This results in a commitment to the negative, a focus on the worst case scenario and a complete abdication of responsibility, all of which leads the city to engage in cost recovery revenue enhancements that are predatory and regressive.
If the City of LA is going to weather the current storm of unemployment, homelessness, home foreclosures, collapsing infrastructure, and crisis-mode delivery of city services, it must start with a resolution to get positive.
There are some who have set their focus so low that simple survival is considered a worthy accomplishment but I would contend that demonstrates a lack of vision and a failure to commit to success.
As the current budget process gets underway, it’s reasonable to ask a few hard questions of the Mayor, of the departmental managers, and of our City Council.
1) What successful municipal authorities have weathered the same economic storm that put LA on the rocks and what can we learn from their success?
Hint: Look to the LA County Board of Supervisors and take note of the contrast between the different strategies for prevailing during economic turbulence. The Supervisors negotiate contracts that will work through thick and thin while the City of LA squanders when it’s ahead and issues promises when it’s behind.
2) What successful municipal authorities have increased revenue without inflicting higher fees, fines, and penalties on its residents and businesses?
Hint: Look to Boston and take note of their economic growth, an increase of 4.8% in 2010, and their ranking as the sixth most economically powerful city in the world. Boston has created an “Innovation District” that is designed to bring major biotechnology business to town while LA still struggles with permits for sidewalk dining outside small cafes.
3) What successful municipal authorities have increased efficiencies in the delivery of city services without increasing costs?
Hint: Look to Long Beach and try to find the Department of Transportation. You won’t. You’ll find Public Works and within it you will find people working together on transportation, engineering, street services, etc. You’ll also find funding experts who represent a city 1/8th the size of LA yet when they go to the same funding sources, they ask for five times as much as LA and they get it. They prevailed because they had the audacity to think big and to go to work.
The people of Los Angeles have a right to leadership that is focused on a vision for the future, not simply a deferential survival of the storm, but a strong commitment to highly functional city machine that delivers city services and moves LA forward, confidently and successfully.
It’s time to reject the traditional budget triage and to reframe the debate, starting with the tough questions for the Mayor, the City Council and the department chiefs.
The LA Times took a shot at asking the candidates for Council District 15 some tough questions, but years of service to a sinking ship has left the editorial staff unable to come up with anything other than “Is there anything the city currently does that it should no longer be doing?” and “One more time: Because you acknowledge we have to cut something, is there anything the city doesn't need to do? Anything we could or should cut or leave to someone else?”
Missing from the interviews are questions that address a vision for LA’s future, the establishment of goals for the city and its departments, oversight and accountability of those performance goals, and a firm commitment for establishing outside revenue streams.
Of course, it’s not up to the LA Times to hold City Hall accountable, it’s up to us, the people of LA, and it starts with a resolution to reframe the debate and insist on a positive approach to the future that is built on a Great City vision.
(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net.)