Mayoral hopeful Wendy Greuel laid out an expensive plan Tuesday to expand the ranks of the Los Angeles police and fire departments by about 20% over seven years — a goal her critics dismissed as virtually impossible given the city's current finances.
At a news conference outside the headquarters of the city firefighters' union, which has endorsed her, Greuel said she set her goal of 12,000 police officers — up from the current level of about 10,000 — based on a recommendation by former L.A. Police Chief William J. Bratton. She also promised to expand crime-prevention programs, create a "public safety trust fund" for emergencies, and improve fire and medical emergency response times, which have increased due to staff cuts during the economic downturn.
"We can do all of this without raising taxes," Greuel said. "It's about cutting waste and it's about setting priorities."
Greuel's mayoral opponents immediately challenged the feasibility of her plan and the mechanism she proposed to pay for it. The average annual cost of a city police officer is about $149,000 including pension and health benefits — meaning 2,000 additional police officers alone could add hundreds of millions of dollars to the annual budget.
The city already faces a deficit of nearly $220 million in the coming fiscal year. Greuel did not identify specific spending cuts to pay for her plan, beyond her disputed claim that she can wrest $160 million in savings from waste she has found in audits as city controller. Her aides declined to provide a cost estimate for her plan.
Greuel said she hoped to fund the additional police and firefighters by devoting 20% of future city revenue growth to her hiring goals. But it was unclear what, if any, money would be available after the city meets its other obligations. The city's chief budget officer, Miguel Santana, has projected about 3% revenue growth next year, at a time when the city expenditures are rising 4% to 5%.
"The good news is our revenue is growing — and it's been growing for the last few years and will continue to grow," Santana said Tuesday. "The challenge is our expenditures are growing at a faster rate."
City Councilman Eric Garcetti, a top rival who has challenged as "fake" Greuel's claim to have found $160 million in "waste, fraud and abuse," said her police and fire plan is equally unrealistic.
"Once again these numbers don't add up," Garcetti said, describing the plan as an "election year promise" disconnected from choices that city leaders will have to make to balance the budget. "Right now people are looking for us to get out of the tunnel.... My focus has been on response times and fire stations, not an arbitrary number of how many people will be on the force, but how the services actually get to" those in need.
Councilwoman Jan Perry said Greuel's plan was "a cut and paste job" of a proposal put out by 2005 mayoral candidate Bob Hertzberg, one of the controller's advisors. Throughout the campaign, Perry said, Greuel has failed to outline any viable solutions to the biggest financial threat facing the city: its pension liabilities.
In his 2005 campaign, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa promised to add 1,000 police officers. But as the recession hit and city revenues fell, Villaraigosa struggled to meet his goal — ultimately managing to add 800 officers for a total force of 10,023.
The police staffing additions came at a time when City Council members were making deep cuts to other city services and laying off employees to balance the city's books.
Greuel did not state a position on restoring $80 million a year in cuts to police overtime, a major priority for the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which also has endorsed her.
Tyler Izen, president of the Police Protective League, said those cuts have meant that between 500 to 700 officers must take time off from their patrols and other duties each month.
The league has long argued that it is more cost-effective to pay overtime than to add officers because of pension and benefit costs.
"Having our officers paid for their overtime, and not sent home, is the fastest way to put more officers on the street," Izen said.
Greuel has been critical of the Fire Department reductions, but Garcetti has noted that she voted for the first wave of cuts as a council member in 2009.