Supervisors Can Play Santa All Year
A baseball field in Topanga, pockmarked with gopher holes, got some.
So did a Latino arts center in East Los Angeles, an opera association that stages Broadway musicals at the Downey Theatre and an economic alliance that tries to attract businesses to the Antelope Valley.
Each year, organizations throughout Los Angeles County quietly collect hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars, all dispersed by individual county supervisors without public notice or a public vote.
Over the last five years, the supervisors have steered more than $11 million to projects close to their hearts, such as the planned Mexican American cultural center and the shimmering Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles.
Smaller donations have rained down on theater troupes and orchestras, soccer leagues and anti-gang programs, libraries, clinics, schools and a smattering of holiday parades.
The five supervisors each get about $1 million a year in discretionary funds to hand out as they see fit, winning thanks from appreciative constituents and cementing their political images with money provided by county taxpayers.
Supervisors and many community groups say these funds help “bridge the gap” in scarce funding for worthy cultural, educational and recreational programs that otherwise might be overlooked. In a county with a $17.9-billion budget that flows mainly to required health, welfare and public safety programs, they welcome the flexibility over what amounts to no more than .03% of the budget.
But the practice allows supervisors to give public money to their favored causes without the usual safeguards. Supervisors in Los Angeles County have much greater power over such spending than their counterparts in some other large urban counties.
The grants are made with no oversight from the full Board of Supervisors and no input from the general public. And the supervisors have no formal process for notifying community groups that grants are available, for deciding how to award them, or for following up to make sure the money was spent as intended.
The supervisors continue to distribute the cash, moreover, even as they have sliced millions from spending on the county’s primary responsibilities, such as public hospitals and jails.
“It seems unfair, because it’s an unchecked fund that the public is not aware of,” said Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles. “But for the politicians, it provides some leeway for them to use public money for their pet projects and pet constituency groups. Of course, all politicians like to grin before the cameras and cut ribbons and hand over big checks.”
The Board of Supervisors started the grant program in 1990 to streamline the budget process, which often bogged down with last-minute requests from supervisors seeking money for their districts.
The supervisors each get about $3 million annually to pay their staff and office expenses, but they never use that much, leaving them about $1 million each to dole out.
If they don’t spend it, the cash rolls over into the next year.
For thrifty supervisors, that can mean one fat piggy bank.
In 2002, for example, Supervisors Gloria Molina and Zev Yaroslavsky had stockpiled more than $7 million apiece.
County documents obtained by The Times detail each supervisor’s discretionary spending patterns -- and hint at their priorities -- between 1999 and 2004. The county only retains detailed financial records for five years.
Molina used most of her discretionary money to begin transforming a 19th-century complex of crumbling brick buildings near Olvera Street into La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a $70-million Mexican American center.
Calling it a “lifelong dream” destined to become one of the county’s cultural jewels, Molina gave the center’s foundation, which she controls, $7 million from her discretionary fund.
(Molina’s project, unlike most funded with discretionary money, was approved by a vote of the Board of Supervisors because she moved the cash into a capital projects fund until she was ready to proceed.)
Each year, Yaroslavsky gives about $400,000 to community groups and saves the rest for big projects, such as $2.6 million to build a child care facility in Van Nuys, $1 million for Disney Hall and $930,000 to help expand the Santa Monica Courthouse.
Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, by contrast, favored smaller donations, often to groups in dire straits. In May, she gave $250,000 to Ability First, formerly known as the Crippled Children’s Society, to help renovate a rundown swimming pool in Inglewood used by disabled children and elderly people.
“She was very kind in finding some money from the county,” said Steve Rosenthal, the public relations director for Ability First. “A lot of the kids have trouble walking and moving their bodies outside the pool, so the pool gives them an opportunity to learn movements.”
Supervisors Don Knabe and Mike Antonovich also favor small-scale grants. Knabe, in particular, sprinkles dollars far and wide, giving $1,269,876 last year to 266 groups, including $510 to the Lakewood High School football team, $1,650 to the Greater Long Beach chapter of the American Red Cross and $5,250 to the Rio Hondo Symphony.
“My philosophy is, the lifeblood of our county really [is] these community-based organizations, whether it be for domestic violence or healthcare or the arts,” Knabe said.
Antonovich said the money keeps small community organizations afloat. “Those groups get lost in the shuffle,” he said, “whereas you have big groups that suck up all the money.”
The bulk of the discretionary spending went to nonprofit groups or cash-strapped government agencies. Although such entities cannot contribute money to political campaigns, the supervisors benefit indirectly from the goodwill that their support generates.
Lynne Plambeck, a Santa Clarita environmentalist who ran against Antonovich in March and lost, said that the supervisor’s donations “absolutely” bolstered his profile during the race.
“He can give it right before the election, so they put it in their newsletter and everyone knows he gave the money,” she said. “It would be better to have that money go through a nonpolitical channel.”
Sometimes the public recognition can be substantial. After Yaroslavsky kicked in $1 million in public funds to the Walt Disney Concert Hall, “The Office of Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky” was emblazoned on the donor wall along with the names of such wealthy philanthropists as Lillian Disney and Eli Broad.
The supervisors have stuck with the discretionary spending practice even through years of lean county budgets.
In 2002, while the five supervisors had a combined $24 million in their accounts, they made deep cuts in the public health system, closing 16 clinics.
This year, while the supervisors used their discretionary funds for music festivals and swimming pools, they placed a measure on the ballot that asked voters to raise the sales tax to help the county hire more sheriff’s deputies. Voters said no.
At the same time, however, the supervisors sometimes dip into their discretionary funds to help county agencies.
Antonovich gave more than $700,000 to the Department of Parks and Recreation, with more than $95,000 going to keep Castaic Lake Recreation Area and the Placerita Canyon Nature Center in Newhall open during last year’s budget crunch.
Some other large counties also give politicians money to spend in their districts, but require a vote on each grant. That is the case in San Diego County, where each supervisor is allotted $2 million annually; San Bernardino County, where each supervisor gets $200,000 per year; and Riverside County, where supervisors receive money from development fees.
“None of that money can be spent without a vote of the board in public, so that the public has a chance to say we like it or we don’t,” said David Wert, a San Bernardino County spokesman.
In Cook County, Ill., the second-largest county after Los Angeles, the 17 commissioners have no discretionary funds.
“In my world, if they want to give money to the Boys & Girls Club, that comes out of their political funds,” said county spokeswoman Karen Stansig.
In Los Angeles County, individual supervisors have the first and last word about how the money is spent. The system includes a liberal dose of whimsy and happenstance.
There are no official guidelines for awarding grants, said Marie Martinez, the board’s fiscal services chief.
Groups receiving county money must sign a contract agreeing to spend the cash as promised and file a financial report, but in practice the county rarely compels them to produce reports. “Usually what they do is they send a thank-you note to the supervisor,” Martinez said.
Yaroslavsky suggested that the supervisors should vote on all discretionary spending, and Burke and Knabe believe large grants should be put to a vote.
“If you’re talking about giving a million dollars, there should be a public vote,” Burke said. “But there should also be an ability to help out in an emergency, if there is an overriding community need. For some of these things, there is not philanthropic support, and I think we have a responsibility.”
Antonovich said the system functions well as it is, and Molina did not return calls seeking comment on discretionary spending.
For politicians whose weekly meetings are often a combative mix of berating bureaucrats for poor performance and enduring condemnation from angry residents, the chance to bestow cash on grateful groups is clearly a refreshing change of pace.
“We spend billions on healthcare and criminal justice in this county, and a county like Los Angeles has to be about more than bureaucratic programs,” Yaroslavsky said. “It has to be about raising the quality of life.”
Yaroslavsky’s smaller donations include $70,000 to renovate a shabby baseball field in Topanga, a hillside community in the Santa Monica Mountains.
“I mean, nothing made me happier than to see county money go to something like that, where kids can go to play ball without having to travel 10 miles,” Yaroslavsky said. “That’s what government is about.”
Many community groups with modest budgets and small staffs support the concept of discretionary government funds.
“There aren’t too many places that an organization can go and get money quickly without an extensive application process,” said Liz Schiller, development director for Pacoima Beautiful, a nonprofit group that strives to clean up the environment.
But she believes there should be more openness, suggesting that supervisors list their grants on their websites. “Then you could see that you can ask for money too,” she said. “And you could see whether they are being evenhanded about giving.”
Her organization has not requested discretionary money from Yaroslavsky, who represents Pacoima. Instead, said director Marlene Grossman, Yaroslavsky’s staff helped her group obtain a private grant worth more than $200,000.
But with the grant expiring, Grossman was thrilled to learn how much discretionary cash Yaroslavsky had. At the end of the fiscal year in June, the supervisors had $14 million. Yaroslavsky alone had more than $4 million.
“Oh my goodness,” Grossman said. “I feel so much better.”
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Spending by supervisors
Every year, the five Los Angeles County supervisors each get about $1 million to spend on community groups and projects as they see fit. Here are the largest contributions each supervisor made during the last five years:
Gloria Molina (District 1)
Mexican American cultural center: $7,000,000
City of Baldwin Park, upgrades at Shyre Park: $400,000
Eastlake Juvenile Hall, alcohol and drug program: $370,000
AVANCE parent education program in county schools: $248,187
Rowland Unified School District, Nogales library: 107,350
Yvonne Brathwaite Burke (District 2)
Ability First, pool for disabled children and the elderly: $250,000
Sheriff’s Department, community policing 2001-02: $224,488
Sheriff’s Department, community policing 1999-2000: $186,000
Sheriff’s Department, community policing 2000-01: $150,187
Los Angeles Eye Institute: $125,000
Los Angeles Air Force Base Regional Alliance: $125,000
Zev Yaroslavsky (District 3)
Van Nuys Civic Center Child Care Center: $2,600,000
Walt Disney Concert Hall: $1,000,000
Santa Monica Courthouse expansion: $930,000
Ford Theater Foundation: $250,000
Topanga Community Club ball field: $70,000
Don Knabe (District 4)
Parks and Recreation, 2001-02 junior golf program: $135,000
Parks and Recreation, 2002-03 junior golf program: $135,000
Little Company of Mary Hospital Foundation, anti-violence programs: $100,000
Los Angeles Air Force Base Regional Alliance: $100,000
Children’s Dental Health Clinic, mobile unit: $100,000
Mike Antonovich (District 5)
Parks and Recreation, 2004 Family Music Festival: $140,638
Parks and Recreation, 2003 Family Music Festival: $100,000
Parks and Recreation, 2002 Family Music Festival: $100,000
Glendale Police Department, two officers for schools: $80,000
Parks and Recreation, 2001 Family Music Festival: 75,000
Source: Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors