Monday, January 25, 2010

Don't let the pols define LA's budget debate

As a long-time analyst of the City of LA budget, community activist, former city employee and union officer, and now a private planning consultant, a few thoughts on the current chapter of the perennial city budget crisis in Los Angeles (as well as the LAUSD,MTA, and Community College District).

1) It is critical to never let the City Hall pols define the budget debate since it means they will limit it to alternative strategies for gouging employees, and by direct extension LA residents. In their shuttered universe their only choices are whether to cut employees and public services and infrastructure from the bottom or the top.

2) The pols' most basic argument is "there is just no money," and it is bogus to the core. It needs to be rigorously exposed as a lie since the pols hidden agenda is their skewed priorities, for which employees and residents rank extremely low.

3) The critical rebuttal points to the pols’ "no money" arguments need to be repeatedly raised:

- Since the 1992 civil disturbance successive Mayors and City Councils have always found enough money for the LAPD by imposing waves of hiring freezes, promotion freezes, increased payroll deductions, and service and infrastructure reductions on other City departments.

-- Since then, the Mayor and the Council have also offered hundreds of millions in tax breaks, fee waivers, and free infrastructure to large real estate projects and home businesses, such as Hollywood and Highland, LA Live, and Playa Vista. Many of these gifts are recurring and cumulatively account for a good chunk of the City's annual budget deficit. It is the metaphorical 500 pound gorilla sitting in the corner

4) Furthermore, outside of the City's internal budgeting issues is ample evidence of plenty of money sloshing around locally and nationally:

-- In the midst of a deep recession new shopping centers and residential projects continue to sprout up through Los Angeles, usually with a basket of zone changes and related permits offered by the same politicians who plead poverty. Can there really be "no money" for building inspectors and engineers to maintain the public infrastructure for these projects, while these enormous projects have enough money to move forward in many parts of the city?

-- In the midst of a recession Los Angeles has been assaulted by hundreds of mostly illegal electronic billboards, each of which costs at least $100,000 to construct and install. How can there be enough money for this flagrant bootleg advertising, but not enough for sign inspectors and City Attorney staff to bring them down?

-- At the Federal level, there has been no problem finding over $1 trillion per year for the Pentagon, related military agencies, and hopeless wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Furthermore, these military budgets continue to grow. If the public sector is broke, how come there is a perpetual gusher to redirect down these rat holes?

-- And, at the Federal level, the bank bailouts have already cost the Federal government over several trillion dollars which will never be recovered, while the final bill could reach $19 trillion when the next financial bubble bursts.

Clearly, there is much work to do to properly address the City's perpetual budget crisis other than accepting the terms of debate offered by elected officials. This means that the echo of that debate among many community groups, that somehow one Mayor after another, or one City Council after another, are just poor managers, needs to be dramatically expanded. Every time they make their poverty pleas, the many rebuttal arguments, such as the ones I have shared here, need to be presented back to them.

Dick Platkin