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.
The San Fernando Valley councilman, for the second time in 10 months, 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 grows from its current 7,600 officers to 10,000. After that, more money would be made available to ensure that the city maintained at least three officers for every 1,000 residents.
The same charter amendment would require a more modest expansion of the Fire Department from its current staff of 3,067 firefighters and paramedics to 3,564.
All other city expenses would, by law, take a back seat. While 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 all other city services.
City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky said adding 2,400 officers would cost nearly $200 million--an amount that could not be collected even with the total 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," concurred Councilman Richard Alarcon. "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, since the growth of the Police Department would take place over five years or more. He accused his colleagues and Mayor Riordan of talking about more 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 demanded.
While the council voted last December to kill the idea outright, it voted 8 to 5 Tuesday to merely cripple it by sending the proposal to committee for a lengthy study.
"I doubt it'll see the light of day," Bernson said. "They'll stonewall it."
Bernson was further irked when Riordan failed to back his idea, saying he needed more time to study it.
Bernson claimed Riordan privately told him during his mayoral campaign that he supported the police plan.
But Tuesday, the mayor, who made the hiring of 3,000 extra officers a high-profile campaign pledge, said he wanted "to withhold comment until I've had time to study" the Bernson plan in greater detail and refused to say if he had promised to support the Bernson plan. "I want to withhold on that too," he said.
The councilman vowed immediately to begin a petition drive to put the matter before voters as early as June. The president of the police officers' union, Dave Zeigler, 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.
To qualify for the ballot, Bernson's proposed City Charter amendment would need 200,370 valid signatures, collected over a 200-day period starting the day supporters published a legal notice of their plans.
Bernson warned his colleagues Tuesday that if they didn't place his measure on the ballot, the voters would. "If you don't do it today, we'll be in the streets next week and do it for you," he told the council.
The council proceeded much more agreeably on Riordan's midyear budget adjustment. It voted 13 to 0 to cut $33 million to compensate for reduced state 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.
The budget, however, would cut 153 employees from the city's 44,000-strong work force. Most would leave through attrition, although some layoffs are possible.
Riordan came to council chambers to promise that his budget will not reduce service to the public, despite sharp reductions in library book purchases, cuts in road maintenance, depleted grants for the arts and a 10% reduction in the mayor's own 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 being stretched to their limits.
The only significant proposal of Riordan's not approved by the council was lifting the nearly three-year 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 the proposal to consolidate 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 that it now shares with the mayor's office, the Community Development Department, the Housing Department and other agencies.
The council also expanded its efforts to recoup an estimated $400 million in unpaid bills by validating the city controller's plan to invigorate collection efforts. The council will consider hiring a collection agency, will judge department heads on debt collection and will clear the way for private attorneys to aid legal efforts to collect unpaid parking tickets.
Despite those plans, 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," promised William McCarley, the mayor's chief of staff.