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When can Los Angeles leaders be trusted to fix the streets?

An audit critical of L.A.'s street service paving agency shows how hard it will be to reform City Hall

If there was ever any hope of reviving the proposed sales tax for Los Angeles street repairs, that hope was extinguished this week when Controller Ron Galperin issued an audit critical of the Bureau of Street Services.

The bureau can't spend all the money it has for street repairs and doesn't collect the money it's owed, the audit found. Managers can't say for sure how many potholes they filled; there are inconsistencies in record keeping. The city is overpaying for asphalt. And workers only spend about 60% of their time actually fixing the streets.

Galperin's audit has been in the works for months and there were hints that the report would find problems in the bureau. Perhaps this is one reason Mayor Eric Garcetti decided not to support putting the proposed half-cent sales tax on the November ballot, which would have generated $4.5 billion to repave the worst streets and fix cracked sidewalks. Without the mayor's support, Councilmen Mitch Englander and Joe Buscaino shelved their proposal.

What's surprising about the audit, though, is the depth of the problems in what has long been regarded as one of L.A.'s best-run departments. For years, city officials have held up the Bureau of Street Services as a model for technological sophistication because managers had a system to measure and track pavement deterioration and prioritize repairs. Managers were quick to adopt new kinds of equipment designed to fix streets faster, with fewer personnel and less impact on neighbors. The bureau was one of the first to work closely with neighborhood councils and was seen as unusually responsive to community ideas.

If L.A.'s model department has such problems and inefficiencies, what hope is there for other city agencies? This is yet another reminder of how hard it is to fix City Hall and the challenge facing Garcetti, who has focused his administration on making government work better and smarter and making L.A. "the best-run city in America."

The theory is that if voters know L.A. can manage its money and deliver excellent service, they'll be more likely to support higher taxes for public improvements.  But Galperin's audit shows just how much work city leaders have to do. Who knows if that street repair sales tax will ever make it to the ballot.

For more opinions, follow me @kerrycavan

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