Just weeks after the Clinton Administration denied Los Angeles inclusion in the lucrative empowerment zone program, city officials are privately raising alarms that pending Justice Department regulations may prevent the city from tapping into a huge new federal program to hire police officers, sources said Monday.
Though senior Justice Department officials insisted that the regulations should pose no problem, city officials have pressed the Administration in a series of private conversations for written assurances that the rules will not block the city from participating in the $8.8-billion, six-year program authorized under last year's crime bill to hire 100,000 police officers nationwide. But so far, they said, they have not received the ironclad assurance they are seeking.
The city's anxiety has reached the point that Mayor Richard Riordan was expected to raise the issue when he saw President Clinton during his visit Monday to Los Angeles.
Senior Justice Department aides said Los Angeles officials, jittery after their bruising disappointment over the empowerment zone decision, are greatly overstating the potential risks to the city's participation in the police hiring program. "The level of hysteria doesn't match the reality of the situation," said one Justice Department aide familiar with the discussions.
The official said the department may send a memorandum to the city as soon as today attempting to resolve its concerns. But because the Administration sent mixed signals for months before denying the city designation as an empowerment zone, Los Angeles officials said they are suspicious of such promises.
"They are trying to assure us there is no problem," said one ranking city official. "After the empowerment zone experience, we are a little leery of the 'no problem' answer. We are seeking assurance that that is true."
The dispute is colored by the Riordan Administration's intense anger about being passed over last month when Clinton designated six cities as "empowerment zones," which entitled them to a package of tax breaks and social service grants intended to spur development in depressed areas. Though the 1992 Los Angeles riots provided an initial spur for the program's passage, Clinton Administration officials ruled that the city's application was too vague about how it would spend the federal aid and lacked commitments for private-sector investment.
Los Angeles was granted a substantial package of aid as a consolation prize, but Riordan was so incensed over the city's rejection that he refused to participate in a conference call that the White House arranged to announce the awards.
The prospect that the city could lose out on a second high-profile urban assistance program has Clinton supporters in Los Angeles warning of potentially catastrophic political consequences for the President in a state central to his prospects for reelection. "The effect would be to shoot the President one more time in the head in Los Angeles," said one political intimate of the mayor.
"For the mayor it is amazing," the person added. "Before the empowerment zones, the mayor had two clear choices (for 1996): Support the President or stay neutral. Now he has two choices: Stay neutral or support the Republican nominee."
Riordan has long been counting on federal aid to help him meet his campaign promise of rapidly expanding the city's police force. Los Angeles officials said they intend to apply later this year for federal aid to hire about 500 officers and are likely to request additional officers in future years.
The potential snag for Los Angeles centers on an arcane but integral provision in the police hiring program approved under the $30-billion crime bill that Congress cleared in August.
The legislation authorizes billions in grants to cities to help hire new police officers. But it bars cities from using the funds to pay for police officers already on their payrolls. This so-called "maintenance of effort" provision is intended to ensure that the federal funds provide a net increase in a city's police force, rather than simply passing on to the federal government the bill for services a city already provides.
In a private letter to U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno last month, Riordan raised concerns that the Justice Department was interpreting that language in a manner that could weaken Los Angeles' prospects of receiving aid. In his letter, Riordan said the city had received indications that the Justice Department might base the "maintenance of effort" requirements on a city's budgeted projection of police officers, rather than the actual number it has on the streets.
For Los Angeles that seemingly technical distinction could mean millions of dollars. Expanding the police force has been Riordan's top priority and the city budget for 1994-95 projects a total force of 8,410 officers. But because of attrition and other factors, the city only had on its force 7,812 officers as of last month, one city official said Monday.
Based on conversations with Justice Department officials, the city's concern is that the Administration will not give Los Angeles money to hire any additional police officers until the city itself provides the funds to reach the 8,410 goal in the budget. At best, the city expects to be about 200 below that target by June, city officials said Monday.
"If we were held to the budgeted numbers, any assistance from the feds could be held to be supplanting existing resources" and thus violating the requirements for maintenance of effort, said the senior city official.
Los Angeles officials said their discussions with Justice Department aides through the end of last week had failed to resolve their concerns. But Monday, the department aide involved in the talks said the Clinton Administration would not hold the city to a rigid standard of meeting its budget hiring goals before providing aid. The official said the department would be likely to provide the city grants to hire more police so long as Los Angeles first paid for all the officers it could "reasonably fund" itself--even if that total came in below the budgeted projection.
Overall, the Clinton Administration will distribute $1.3 billion in aid to cities this year for hiring new police officers. It already has disbursed about half the money in programs for which Los Angeles either did not qualify or did not apply, another senior Justice Department official said Monday. Los Angeles is expected to apply for some of the remaining money.
The remaining billions of dollars that the crime bill authorized for hiring police officers beyond this year remain up in the air because congressional Republicans have proposed reducing the legislation's overall funding and combining its police and crime prevention programs into one new block grant for cities.
Times staff writer Ronald Ostrow contributed to this report.