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City Faces Loss of Funds Used to Expand LAPD

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Four years after launching the largest police buildup in Los Angeles history, the Riordan administration is confronted with a fast-approaching cutback in the federal money that paid for hundreds of new officers.

The mayor’s staff, however, has shrugged off warnings about the scheduled cutoff, unnerving other city leaders.

The short-term result is a potential $40-million shortfall in the Los Angeles Police Department budget, which could force a massive scale-back in departmental operations or, more probably, increase the pinch on other city departments as they are forced to make up the difference. Over the next few years, that shortfall could grow to more than $120 million.

Noelia Rodriguez, press secretary to Mayor Richard Riordan, acknowledged that the federal money is winding down, but said that Riordan’s new budget will absorb any cutbacks without causing damage to the LAPD or other city agencies.

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“We’re not going to reveal the contents of the mayor’s budget . . . two weeks before it is released,” she said. “But he is going to come out with a balanced budget which meets the priorities of all the departments, including the LAPD.”

But while Rodriguez spoke up for the Riordan administration, other city officials agreed with City Councilwoman Laura Chick, who said: “It’s time to pay the piper. . . . We knew this day would come, and now it’s the reckoning.”

Like Chick, some city officials are irked by what they see as Riordan’s lack of a plan to deal with a long foreseeable problem. According to several observers, Riordan aides have raised the issue in budget talks, but have not presented a plan to deal with it beyond seeking an extension from the federal government.

“They’ve been talking about [the budget problem],” one city official said. “But they’re not doing much about it.”

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Another top city official familiar with the budget agreed. “This is a major part of our shortfall,” the official said. “It’s going to take some work.”

In 1997, Chick was one of several council members who raised questions about accepting some of the federal police-hiring money because she was worried that there was no plan to pay the new officers once the federal money ran out. Now she argues that her earlier warnings, which were echoed by Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg and Councilman Richard Alatorre, have been borne out, and that the city’s budgetary problems are vastly complicated by the looming disappearance of the federal funds.

So far, Riordan’s response has been to ask Washington for more time.

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When Vice President Al Gore visited Los Angeles earlier this month, Riordan urged the federal government to extend its support for police at least another year, if not longer. Riordan staffers remain hopeful that Washington’s relative prosperity and the warm spot that the Clinton White House always has had for Los Angeles will combine to produce another major dollop of federal aid.

“The vice president has not gotten back to us on our request,” Rodriguez said. “However, we are confident that he has heard it.”

And yet, even Riordan supporters admit that hoping for a handout is not a solution to paying for local police. At best, the federal government might extend its commitment by another year or two, officials said.

Asked to describe the Riordan team’s approach, one top official responded: “They’re praying.”

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William R. Moran, who heads the LAPD’s fiscal and budget division, said the department is “working hard to assist [the mayor] in any way we can. It remains to be seen how this will work out.”

In fact, the problems surfacing now are just the first of a number of shortfalls that will confront the city over the next few years. In total, the federal government awarded Los Angeles more than $100 million to hire and train new police officers.

Using that money as well as some city funds, the LAPD embarked on a major hiring program that was the hallmark of Riordan’s first term. Over four years, the Police Department grew by more than 2,000 officers, and it has continued to add them during Riordan’s second term.

The federal government’s contribution to that expansion was enormous. The initial grant, in 1995, was for $48.2 million, enough to hire and train 643 officers. The second grant was for $53.3 million, enough for an additional 710 officers.

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By 2001 or 2002, the city will need to come up with as much as $120 million a year to pay for the officers subsidized by the federal government. Other federal programs to pay for civilian employees could push that bill even higher, officials said, putting severe strain on the overall city budget as it tries to accommodate those bills without slashing police or other services.

The prospect of serious shortfalls has caused concern inside the LAPD, but even greater anxiety in other major city departments. That is because most City Hall insiders believe that the Riordan team would cut elsewhere to preserve police.

In the past, the Fire Department occasionally has been the victim of that type of shifting, but the recent deaths of four city firefighters have put that department in the budget spotlight. As a result, other agencies--from Recreation and Parks to the city attorney’s office to the city sanitation services--are watching the fate of the LAPD money with interest.

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For years, the LAPD has been the focus of Riordan’s most aggressive expansion efforts, a sustained buildup that has made it the object of resentment among many city departments. The LAPD spends about $3 million a day to police the city, pay its debts and keep up its facilities. Few think that Riordan would dramatically scale back that effort, even if faced with a shortfall of federal money.

“If that money goes away,” said one high-ranking member of another city department, “you just know the mayor’s going to protect the LAPD. That leaves the rest of us on the block.”

But Rodriguez said general managers and others who are worrying about the administration’s plan are overreacting. She attributed the concerns being expressed to “pre-budget jitters,” and urged administrators to wait until the budget is made public before they jump to conclusions.

The Riordan administration is expected to release its budget for the coming fiscal year on April 20. That budget will be for the 1998-99 fiscal year that begins July 1.

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