Yaroslavsky Resolves to Take a Risk

By challenging the powerful unions representing Los Angeles city employees, Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky is starting the year as a real risk taker.

This is an enormous change for the usually cautious Yaroslavsky, who declined to give up his safe West Side-San Fernando Valley council seat in 1989 to run against Mayor Tom Bradley. But when California gained congressional seats as a result of the census, Yaroslavsky began flirting with the idea of running for one of them. Such a race is no place for the cautious.

Back in the council, Yaroslavsky is crusading for a city employee pay cut, warning of a big budget deficit Los Angeles faces next year. Eighteen months of recession have cut down revenues from sales and business taxes in a city especially hard hit by the nation's economic decline. This will result, Yaroslavsky estimates, in a $130-million shortfall.

He proposed freezing the pay of city workers, denying them the 4% to 5% increases they expect this year. In addition, Yaroslavsky wants the employees to take several days off during the year without pay.

That's about a 6% pay cut overall, paring away $120 million to $130 million in spending.

Proposing a pay cut for municipal employees is politically risky, even suicidal. The unions representing public employees are strong and active in political campaigns. If Yaroslavsky runs in the new congressional district extending from the West San Fernando Valley into Ventura County, the unions can be expected to provide money and campaign workers to an opponent like Valley Councilwoman Joy Picus.

In fact, Bill Robertson, L.A.'s top AFL-CIO official, is holding a meeting of city employee union heads next week to plan strategy against the Yaroslavsky move. "Our people should not be punished because of the bad economy," he said.

Given Bradley's longtime alliance with organized labor--and his lengthy rivalry with Yaroslavsky--the mayor is much more likely to go with Robertson than Yaroslavsky.

In that case, it would be easy to characterize this issue a Zev vs. Tom fight.

But the issue is much more complicated.

The deficit means the recession is finally hitting L.A.'s City Hall, which has not suffered as much as some levels of government during the past 18 months of widespread economic troubles.

When the first signs of recessionary pain struck City Hall last spring, the City Council imposed a hiring freeze. That reduced municipal employment by about 2,000. But there wasn't much of a sense of emergency. The council exempted itself from the hiring freeze, paving the way for lawmakers to hire about 55 employees. Yaroslavsky himself asked for permission to hire two more staff members.

Up the street at the L.A. County Hall of Administration, cuts in state and federal aid have resulted in drastic reductions in services to the poor, worsening a fiscal situation that has been tight since 1978 when Proposition 13 reduced the county's main source of income, the property tax. The same is true with other counties. In Sacramento, the state government is wrestling with its second straight multibillion-dollar budget deficit.

While county government suffered hard times through the '80s, the city work force grew from 28,515 to 33,847.

Reality hit in December when it became clear to economists and business leaders that, at best, L.A.'s economy will recover slowly and municipal income will remain low.

"Eighty per cent of the budget is in wages and benefits," Yaroslavsky told me recently. "In the last two years, we have been fiddling with the other 20% . . . No council in its right mind would raise taxes. There's only one area left to address, the money we spend on salaries."

The choice, he said, is between the pay cut and employee layoffs.

He opposes layoffs. Police officers, firefighters and sanitation workers--providers of essential services--would be spared. Thus the blow would fall heaviest on maintenance people, park employees, librarians and clerks, especially those with low seniority.

Yaroslavsky came out with his proposal just as the city prepares to begin contract negotiations with the municipal unions.

He wants the pay cut to be made part of the official city bargaining position. That will require approval by the council and Mayor Bradley.

Tuesday, Yaroslavsky's budget committee will hold a hearing on his pay cut proposal. To Yaroslavsky, grappling with the issue will be giving the city and its employees a taste of the real world, the one outside City Hall.

Aware of the opposition, he's pushing ahead. "This is not a threat, it's reality," he said.

The opposition will be a reality too, the price of high-risk politics.

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