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The Sky Is Falling--or Is It?

I happened to look at Richard Alatorre as the Los Angeles City Council began voting last Friday on financing the popular police foot beat patrols.

The councilman saw me. He put his hands out flat in front of him and wiggled them as if he was patting the air--the traditional sign of a tough call.

Alatorre was right. This was one of the difficult calls of the year. For it showed what the council faces during the current debate over the budget: When money’s short, the council must first set priorities and then force them on reluctant bureaucrats.

There’s a Chicken Little quality to these fiscal crises. Everyone from the librarian to the police chief needs more money, or else. . . . But despite their doomsday tales, the sky never completely falls.

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There’s some truth in what they say. That’s because the sky has collapsed gradually, like the roof of a crumbling old building. In the five years or so following Proposition 13, libraries pared down hours and services. Street repairs fell behind. It took longer for the Police Department to respond.

A boom in mid-'80s sales tax revenues, plus city tax increases, brought enough money to City Hall to repair the most obvious damage. Some once-shabby parks were improved. Library services were increased.

Now there’s another crisis. Council fiscal advisers have warned that declines in the real estate, automobile and hotel business have reduced business tax revenues while city expenses have continued to rise.

On the scale of fiscal crises, let’s give this one a magnitude of 4--Proposition 13 having been at least an 8. (Only events like the Great Depression truly reach 10.)

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But a 4 is bad enough. It means that the council--to keep the city running without deteriorating into the decay of the post-Proposition 13 years--will have to balance the department heads’ disaster warnings against revenues.

The Police Department, in fighting for money to continue the foot patrols, had approached the vote with its usual political care. It rallied neighborhood support for the foot patrols and got one of the most influential council members, Joan Milke Flores, to speak for the cops.

On the other side was the council Finance Committee chairman, Zev Yaroslavsky. Yaroslavsky said the city cupboard was almost bare, but there was $407,000 left in the Police Department’s funds, squirreled away in an overtime account. He said the department could--and should--use that money to pay for continued foot patrols. It would, he said, be supplemented by $93,000 from money still in the general city reserve fund. Assistant Police Chief Robert Vernon, speaking for Chief Daryl V. Gates, said there wasn’t any unspent overtime. As he warned of longer response times, Vernon took on a definite Chicken Little tone.

When it was time to decide, Alatorre was viewed as uncertain vote--but a key one because of his power on the council.

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He had to think of the Police Department’s warning that, depending on his vote, it might take patrol cars a crucial minute or two longer to reach a constituent in distress. That wouldn’t go over well in Alatorre’s East Los Angeles district or in any other part of the city. But Alatorre also saw another part of the picture. He serves on the Finance Committee with Yaroslavsky and had been extensively briefed on the city’s overall fiscal condition.

There were also personal and political factors. Yaroslavsky and Alatorre are career rivals, two men who revel in the intricate maneuvering of politics. Should they become allies on the budget?

The clerk called for the vote. The red light flashed in front of Alatorre’s name on the electronic scoreboard on the wall. He had voted no: the police should not get extra money for the foot patrols. Flores had needed eight, and she fell one short. The council immediately voted 12-0 to instruct the department to pay for the patrols out of the overtime funds.

Later in the afternoon, Gates, thoroughly enjoying being defiant, said he would ignore the council and cancel the patrols. But when I talked to Alatorre, it was clear that despite Gates’ defiant talk, the chief had lost an important round. Chicken Little hadn’t worked. “I’m not convinced they (the department) don’t have the money somewhere,” Alatorre said. “They have to be more persuasive. You get into a credibility gap.”

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Next week, Chief Gates, or one of his assistants, will be back, as will the department heads in charge of parks, libraries, street repairs, garbage collection and all of the other city services. That’s when the final debate on next year’s budget begins.

Of all the department heads, Gates is the most powerful, with the strongest base of community support. The fact that he lost Alatorre, and was turned down by the council last week, shows that he and his colleagues will have to make stronger cases next week. If they want to argue that the sky’s falling in, they had better bring some proof.


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