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Lawmaker’s Demands Stall County Project

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just when the county finally seemed ready to rebuild quake-damaged County-USC Medical Center in Boyle Heights, a new political wrinkle has not only delayed the massive public health project, but may also have pushed up its ultimate cost.

Los Angeles City Councilman Nick Pacheco is holding up a reconstruction of the county’s biggest public hospital because, among other things, he wants a guarantee that 40% of all the skilled labor required by the project will be hired from within his Eastside district.

Before construction on the $818-million project can begin, the city needs to vacate a single, currently unoccupied, street. But Pacheco has kept that move bottled up in the city’s Public Works Committee because, along with the jobs, he wants a pedestrian bridge added to the county’s project to protect against traffic fatalities, and residents who may need medical assistance to be relocated during construction.

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Pacheco’s demands have kept the project stalled for nearly a month, with county officials putting the cost at $126,000 a day. That’s about $3.5 million as of today, and the next City Council Public Works Committee meeting isn’t until Nov. 15.

Pacheco said the county is to blame for not acting on his concerns when he first warned of them a year ago. The councilman said he is just protecting his constituents and treating the county like the council treats any private developer. One private development in Pacheco’s district is relocating residents from an area near Montecito Hills, and others across the city are required to hire from local communities.

“Are they saying they don’t want to be treated like a private developer? That we should treat them differently because they’re the county?” Pacheco asked rhetorically.

A meeting between Pacheco’s chief of staff and a top representative from the office of Supervisor Gloria Molina, who heads the Board of Supervisors and represents the Eastside, is scheduled for today. County officials say they hope to swiftly solve the impasse.

“We’re not being critical of him,” county Chief Administrative Officer David Janssen said. “We just need resolution.”

The replacement of County-USC, which was badly damaged in the 1994 Northridge quake, has been delayed nearly three years by political bickering. The Board of Supervisors had wanted to rebuild the facility at a capacity of 600 beds; Molina, a coalition of Eastside lawmakers and medical experts demanded 750 beds, saying that a smaller hospital would not meet the needs of the region’s burgeoning uninsured population.

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At the end of this year’s legislative session, Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks) brokered a compromise: The replacement hospital would have only 600 beds, but a new facility in Baldwin Park would include 80 more. The supervisors approved the deal, Gov. Gray Davis signed the bill and the largest construction project in county history was about to move forward.

But for the past month, supervisors have had to delay authorizing the start of the work because of Pacheco’s refusal to allow the county to build on Cummings Street.

Years ago, the county bought up the properties on that block and in the surrounding area, relocating 200 families to clear the way for the project. But it still needs the city to cede the right of way to the site.

Pacheco has listed three demands before the council’s Public Works Committee can sign off on ceding the right of way. First, he wants a pedestrian bridge connecting a parking lot with the hospital. Second, a detailed mitigation plan must be drafted for residents on Chicago and Charlotte streets. Pacheco wants the county to take care of those who need to be temporarily relocated during construction.

Finally, Pacheco wants 40% of all skilled trade work to come from within his council district, and 10% of the entire work force to be from a citywide pool of “at-risk” workers.

“If you’re going to come into a neighborhood and build an $800-million project, I think you’re going to be a little bit of a burden,” Pacheco said. “It’d be nice to give some of that back.”

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The pedestrian bridge is included in project plans, but not budgeted--and Pacheco said he wants to see the money appropriated first. Pointing out that they already relocated 200 families, though, county officials are balking at pledging to move another group during the construction.

“To suggest that we temporarily relocate a whole set of folks would be a tremendous inconvenience to the whole community, not to mention a serious cost to the county,” said Miguel Santana, the Molina aide who is scheduled to meet with Pacheco’s office today.

The county has said it planned to have a local hiring component in the massive project, but that legally it could not confine it to a council district. Instead, it would occur in a 5-mile radius from the site. Pacheco said that was agreeable to him.

“We don’t think we’re that far apart,” Santana said.

But Pacheco blamed the county for the mess, stressing that he has long warned officials of the problems.

“They have sat on their hands at this date and now view it as a crisis,” Pacheco said. It is, he added, “really something they’ve created.”

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