Mayor Richard Riordan's first financial plan for Los Angeles sailed through the City Council on Tuesday, reducing spending in virtually all departments but allowing for a modest increase in police staffing.
The council unanimously approved Riordan's plan for $50 million in spending cuts and other adjustments to balance the budget. But it gave a cold reception to a more dramatic proposal by Councilman Hal Bernson to make a 2,400-officer expansion of the police force the city's top spending priority.
The vote on Riordan's first budget and the Bernson plan highlighted a day in which the City Council took several actions related to the city's troubled economic outlook. In separate votes, the lawmakers moved to get tough on the city's recalcitrant debtors and instigated a consolidation of all the city's economic development efforts under the Community Redevelopment Agency.
The most spirited debate of the day was reserved for the proposal by Bernson.
For the second time in 10 months, the San Fernando Valley councilman asked the council to place a charter amendment on the ballot that would make building a 10,000-member Police Department the city's No. 1 budgetary goal.
The department would be given as much money as it needed each year to hire the maximum number of officers until the force could grow from its current 7,600 officers to 10,000. After that, more money would be made available to allow the city to maintain an even higher level of staffing, with at least three officers for every 1,000 residents.
The same charter amendment would require a modest expansion of the Fire Department from its current staff of 3,067 firefighters and paramedics to a force of 3,564.
All other city expenses would, by law, take a back seat. Although Bernson argued that the shift in priorities could be made by cutting waste and making tough decisions, his opponents argued that the charter amendment would devastate other city services.
City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky said that adding 2,400 officers would cost nearly $200 million--an amount that could not be collected even with the dismantling of six departments: Library, Recreation and Parks, Cultural Affairs, Animal Regulation, City Attorney and Public Works.
"We can't do this without knowing the impact on other services in the city," Councilman Richard Alarcon said. "What good is it having a Police Department if you can't pay for roads and traffic signals to get them somewhere safely?"
Bernson argued that the damage to other city services was being exaggerated because the growth of the Police Department would take place over five years or more. He accused his colleagues and Riordan of talking about greater police service but not acting.
"How long are we going to wait to give the citizens of Los Angeles a chance to make police their top priority?" Bernson said.
Although the council voted in December to kill the idea, it voted 8 to 5 Tuesday to merely cripple it by sending the proposal to committee for a lengthy study. Bernson was further angered when Riordan failed to back his idea, saying he needed more time to study it.
The councilman vowed to begin a petition drive to put the matter before voters as early as June. Dave Zeigler, president of the police officers union, quickly pledged financial and volunteer support for the effort. And the head of the firefighters union said his members are also likely to join in.
The council proceeded much more agreeably on Riordan's midyear budget adjustment. It voted 13 to 0 to make $33 million in cuts to compensate for reduced state government funding and to create a $17-million reserve with other reductions.
The Riordan plan provides enough money for the Police Department to continue hiring until it reaches its previously authorized level of 7,900 officers.
In other departments, however, the budget would cut 153 employees from the city's 44,000-member work force. Most are expected through attrition, although some layoffs are possible.
Riordan came to the council chambers to promise that his budget will not reduce service to the public, despite sharp reductions in purchases of library books, cuts in road maintenance, depleted arts grants and a 10% reduction in the mayor's staff.
"We will do whatever we can to make sure we don't cut back on services," Riordan told the council, saying he would use volunteers and private donations if necessary.
Some city administrators are skeptical. They contend that volunteerism and philanthropy are already stretched to their limits.
The only significant Riordan proposal not approved by the council was a lifting of a nearly 3-year-old freeze on hiring by city departments. The mayor has said administrators should be allowed to manage their employees as they see fit--with their performance to be judged on the results.
But council members have asked for more study of the proposal, saying they are concerned that department heads do not have the discipline to keep within their budgets without a prohibition on hiring.
The council took two other actions Tuesday to get the city's financial house in order.
It unanimously approved consolidating the city's economic development efforts. The specifics of that plan are to be considered by the City Council in about two months, with the Community Redevelopment Agency expected to take over business promotion responsibilities it now shares with the mayor's office, the Community Development Department, the Housing Department and other agencies.
The council also validated a plan by the city controller to invigorate efforts to collect an estimated $400 million in unpaid bills. The council will consider hiring an outside collection agency, will judge department heads on how well they collect on debts and will clear the way for private attorneys to represent the city in court to collect unpaid parking tickets.
Despite those efforts, though, Riordan's aides warned that further budget adjustments are likely this year as tax revenues continue to shrivel. "Shortly after the first of the year, we will be back to you again," said William McCarley, the mayor's chief of staff.