A couple of Los Angeles County supervisors dropped by The Times last week to discuss our treatment of the county's fiscal crisis.
Board Chairman Ed Edelman and Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke felt we were giving the wrong message. It was true, they said, that the county ended the year with many millions of dollars more than expected after crying poverty during budget hearings. But they said we put too negative a spin on this news, implying the county was guilty of sloppy bookkeeping when it should be praised for penny-pinching.
Some members of our team wondered why the county couldn't keep track of its money better, the same as people do with their checking accounts. I repressed a laugh. Journalists, including myself, are well-known for mismanaging their checkbooks.
Burke had a suggestion. She said the county should pass its budget in August, when it has firm estimates of its revenues, rather than in June, as is done now.
After the session broke up, one of our editors, Craig Turner, said he thought that the discussion was too narrow, that the talk should have really been about the nature of Southland government itself. The trouble was, he said, that the entire rickety, poorly conceived, duplicative government structure in the L.A. region is out of control.
Think about it. The Los Angeles Police Department and the Sheriff's Department each have training academies. We have both city and county libraries. Cities and suburbs each run their own bus lines. Long Beach and L.A. have side-by-side harbors. The county has a school superintendent and so do all the school districts around here.
The list goes on and on and this column is supposed to be short so I'll stop. But you get the idea.
The situation is not new. We've had too many layers of government for years. Writers Samuel E. Wood and Alfred H. Heller called attention to the phenomenon in 1964 in their environmentally oriented magazine, California Tomorrow.
"Ask a Californian who represents him in his fire district, his water district, his sewer district and it is likely he will have no idea," they wrote. "In fact, he might never have heard of the district itself, especially if he pays district taxes through a consolidated county tax assessment or through his bank mortgage payment."
Their article provoked comment but no reform. In fact, layers of government multiplied--redevelopment agencies, transit district, new cities, each of them eating up tax dollars to support new layers of bureaucracy.
Political scientists and various reform groups decried such growth. But reform went nowhere. Cities, counties and all the special districts opposed consolidation. It would have cost them power and jobs.
The public wasn't interested. Local government reform was a tedious and arcane subject. Meanwhile, parks were built and maintained, garbage was collected and the cops and firefighters were paid.
Things began to fall apart when Proposition 13 reduced property tax revenue to counties, cities and districts. Now there weren't enough property tax dollars to support the governmental sprawl.
State aid to local government made up some of the loss through the '80s. But when the recession sharply reduced state and local revenue, the huge local government structure was left high and dry, like a beached whale.
The only solution is to modernize the monster. Now that we're in trouble, let's take a look at some of the ideas and complaints that political scientists and reformers have been trying to float for years:
Why do we need the Sheriff's Department and all the city police departments, each with their own hardware and SWAT squads? We're like the nationalistic countries that emerged from the old Communist world, desperate to have our own flags and armies.
Let's pool our law enforcement resources and mass them at crime hot spots.
Get rid of all the redevelopment agencies. Why allow them to go on siphoning off property tax funds to buy land for business development when we need that money for schools and police?
We have 88 cities in Los Angeles County, and about 400 special districts. The districts were formed to provide flood control, garbage disposal, fire protection, street lighting, libraries, parks, water and cemeteries. They all have bosses, workers, benefits, vehicles, phone bills, computers and pensions.
Let's consolidate all this. Do you really care whether the firetruck has a Pasadena or San Marino emblem? Of course not. You just want the fire put out. How many public works departments do we need in L.A. County?
There's been a lot of talk about Reinventing Government. This would be Really Reinventing Government. As Ross Perot likes to say about some of his more far-out ideas, "It won't be pretty." Politicians fear change, but with their enterprise in trouble, they've got to begin thinking of ways to deliver services in a manner we can afford.