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Inequity is 'baked in' when it comes to L.A. city services; where you live matters

Improving basic city services has become a top priority at Los Angeles City Hall. But how promptly municipal agencies respond to Angelenos' complaints depends largely on where they live, a Los Angeles Times analysis found.

An examination of more than 1.4 million service requests since 2010 showed vast disparities across the city in how long it took to patch a pothole, pick up a broken-down sofa or paint over graffiti.

City crews took four weeks to fill potholes in Hollywood Hills West, but just four and half days in Chinatown.

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In West Los Angeles, bulky items were picked up by the next scheduled trash collection day more than 97% of the time. In Wilmington, it was less than 40% of the time.

And when residents in Mid-Wilshire called for graffiti removal, they waited a median time of more than three days, compared with less than three hours in Sunland, a foothill community in the San Fernando Valley.

The findings parallel those in a Times report earlier this month, which found that city crews respond to complaints of illegally dumped refuse at dramatically different rates in many of the city's 114 neighborhoods. And poorer areas generally received worse service than wealthier ones. After the report was published, Mayor Eric Garcetti ordered an internal investigation of the city sanitation agency's performance.

Unlike illegal dumping, the city's response to complaints about potholes, graffiti and abandoned furniture did not track a neighborhood's wealth. For Garcetti and city administrators, the wide variations in service levels underscore the challenges of ensuring consistency in basic functions of municipal government for nearly 4 million people spread across 500 square miles.

"In a city as large as Los Angeles, it will never be easy to see change happen evenly," said Garcetti, who has made across-the-board improvement of core city services the centerpiece of his first-term administration's "Back to Basics" agenda.

"But I am committed to that goal," he said, adding that the city is changing the way it deploys resources to better address varying service demands. "I will not be satisfied until we have reached parity across the city."

Officials point to citywide improvements in the delivery of services since Garcetti took office more than two years ago. For example, median response time on pothole complaints was cut from 14 to 7 days, according to the analysis of data through 2014.

But The Times found significant disparities persist when it comes to how promptly City Hall addresses residents' complaints.

In some cases, agency officials weren't aware of the imbalances and were unable to explain them.

"The city just has a bunch of inequity baked in," said newly elected Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, whose South L.A. constituents received slower service on potholes, graffiti and illegal dumping removal. "There is a lot that is accepted as 'that is just the way it is.'"

Harris-Dawson and several of his City Council colleagues are calling for a detailed assessment of basic service levels, why they vary so significantly from area to area and how the differences can be reduced.

Neighborhood leaders are echoing those demands.

"Nobody is asking for anything more than anybody else gets," said Anastasia Mann, president of Hollywood Hills West Neighborhood Council, where pothole response was the slowest in the city. "Just having your concerns answered is all we want.

"People think there is extra political clout" in the Hollywood Hills, she said. "But it's just not true."

Indeed, the slowest median response time for pothole repairs over the last five years was recorded in some of the city's pricier neighborhoods, including Mann's, Beverly Crest, Studio City and Windsor Square. Crews took three weeks or more to fill potholes in those communities. Slow repair times also were found in South L.A. areas such as Manchester Square and University Park.

The fastest pothole service — five days or less — was provided in downtown's Chinatown, as well as Lincoln Heights and El Sereno on the Eastside.

Nazario Sauceda, director of the Bureau of Street Services, said staffing shortages, equipment malfunctions and bad weather can add to delays. But he couldn't explain the uneven service levels found by The Times.

"I don't really know," Sauceda said. "If you happen to see that in some areas that the response takes a little longer, let me assure you it's not because we want to discriminate against an area."

Citing more recent 2015 city data, Sauceda said citywide response times for pothole complaints were just under two days on average. (The Times used median response times in its analysis.) The service improved partly because trucks have been equipped with GPS units that allow them to be more quickly and efficiently assigned to new reports of pothole problems, he said.

Bulky item pick-up also has improved citywide during the Garcetti administration, with collections completed before the next scheduled trash pickup day 90% of the time, records show. The comparable rate before Garcetti took office was 82%. Enrique Zaldivar, director of the bureau of sanitation, said the good performance has continued into this year.

The Times' review showed service disparities were significant in bulky item pickup as well. On the Westside, 95% of discarded furniture and other large items were removed before the next trash collection day — the agency's standard for good performance. But in four neighborhoods in the harbor area — Wilmington, San Pedro, Harbor City and Harbor Gateway — the city failed to pick up more than half of the requests in that time frame, the analysis found.

On graffiti removal requests, the median wait for city-hired contractors to paint over the markings was more than three days in a dozen neighborhoods in South L.A., including Vermont Knolls, Chesterfield Square and University Park. In the foothill communities of Sunland, Tujunga and Lake View Terrace, the wait was less than a day.

Paul Racs, director of the Office of Community Beautification, said South L.A. neighborhoods have the most requests for graffiti removal. Responding in those areas can involve safety issues for the work crews and require police escorts, increasing delays, he said.

As crew supervisors with the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, which paints over graffiti under a city contract, Barbara Rocha and Norah Bustamante paint up to 100 spots per shift.

They carry paints in 14 basic colors and another 20 for custom jobs. As they cover up graffiti, taggers sometimes wait nearby, they said, shaking spray paint cans.

On an overcast spring day, the pair stopped in Jefferson Park and used rollers to paint over a graffiti-covered wall.

"We've been here every single day this year," Rocha said. "It gets hit constantly."

Times staff writer Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.

ben.poston@latimes.com

peter.jamison@latimes.com

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