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Newton: Treating L.A.'s spending addiction

Unemployment and LayoffsFinanceBusinessBudgets and BudgetingJobs and WorkplaceCrime, Law and JusticeLos Angeles Police Department

City Councilman Bernard C. Parks likes to describe Los Angeles' budget woes as the consequence of an untreated addiction — the city's habit of adding workers in good times and then being unwilling to let them go in bad times. The result is ever-increasing personnel costs and ballooning pension and healthcare obligations for retired city workers.

In recent years, Parks, a former chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, has become increasingly strident in his insistence that the city must mend its ways, and his message has made him plenty of enemies. Organized labor spent heavily to defeat him in his bid for county supervisor and nearly succeeded in knocking him out of his council seat at reelection time. But what labor failed to do at the ballot box, it succeeded in doing through the new council president. Soon after winning that office, Herb Wesson purged Parks of his chairmanship of the council's Budget and Finance Committee, handing that plum instead to Councilman Paul Krekorian.

So it's Krekorian who now stares down the barrel of a budget shortfall estimated at somewhere around $238 million. It's not pretty.

Krekorian brings a different style to his task than Parks did. Where the former chief relished sparring, Krekorian is softer spoken, more inclined to seek consensus. On the day we met last week, he was marking "denim day," a public campaign to raise awareness about sexual assault and rape, and so wore jeans and loafers with his blazer and tie. Parks is more inclined to pinstripes, and even though he's in his third term as a city councilman, it's hard not to picture him in his LAPD blue, and not to remember that he spent most of his adult waking life with a gun strapped to his thigh.

But while Krekorian's style is different, the new committee chairman says he's determined to make hard choices in preparing a budget. Reviewing the mayor's proposal and discussing it with department heads has been a bit unnerving, he conceded. "Maybe alarm would be too strong a word, but concern" is warranted, Krekorian said.

Undergirding the council's difficult work in the coming weeks are two unfinished pieces of business on the part of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's administration: Seven years into his tenure, there still is no consensus about what constitutes the city's core services, and there is no clear repudiation of the city's habit of hiring in good times and its reluctance to fire in bad.

Krekorian may be more inclined to collaboration than Parks — he cites his work with the Burbank School Board, in which the board avoided layoffs by working with labor to get concessions elsewhere, and he says he looks forward in these deliberations to meeting with all affected groups — but he recognizes that, in the end, something has to give. The budget submitted by Villaraigosa would eliminate 669 city jobs, 231 of those through layoffs. It would also raise the retirement age from 60 to 67.

"There's no escaping the fact that we have to come up with more than $200 million in budget solutions," Krekorian said, adding that most of that will have to come from cost-cutting because the city's ability to raise revenue is very limited.

Krekorian's not ready to put a number on how many jobs may have to go, but the city's costs are heavily in its people, so cutting $200 million in costs inevitably will mean eliminating jobs. That's a hard sell to city workers who have been asked to increase pension and healthcare contributions in recent years, and to many council members who owe their positions in part to the support of unions. When Villaraigosa announced his budget last week, two of the first city leaders to express concern were Councilman Eric Garcetti and Controller Wendy Greuel, both of whom are candidates to succeed the mayor.

As city departments fight to protect their turf and resources, they will elbow to define themselves as central to the city's mission, raising the other continuing budget question: What are the essential duties of the government, and what can it afford to stop doing?

City departments are likely to argue that budget cuts will impinge on public safety. That's an easy case for the Police and Fire departments to make, though it hasn't helped protect the LAFD in recent years. Other departments will join in. Street Lighting will make the case that street lights prevent crime; Sanitation will argue that dilapidated neighborhoods breed crime; Planning will contend that growth creates jobs and jobs reduce crime. As Krekorian points out, all those things are true, but the city simply has to make cuts.

This week begins the budget hearings in earnest, and the council will face hard decisions, some of which it has evaded before. Through the process, the city will learn whether Parks' confrontational style or Krekorian's gentler approach is more effective.

Jim Newton’s column appears Mondays. His latest book is "Eisenhower: The White House Years." Reach him at jim.newton@latimes.com or follow him on Twitter: @newton_jim.

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