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Promises, Promises Could Cost L.A. Millions, Billions

Times Staff Writer

Hiring 1,300 additional police officers: $130 million.

Planting 1 million trees: $140 million.

Extending the Red Line subway to the beach: $2.7 billion.

All those officers, all those trees, all that track and the more than three dozen other major promises that Antonio Villaraigosa made to the people of Los Angeles during the mayoral campaign will not come cheap.

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Just after midnight he became the 41st mayor of the nation’s second-largest city, an ascension that will be marked today by an elaborate inauguration ceremony.

Now, Villaraigosa comes face to face with one of the harsh inevitabilities of politics: It’s easier to make grand pronouncements than to carry them out.

Even before today, Villaraigosa confronted the city’s budget realities, learning that he may have to deal with a potential deficit that could balloon to $278 million within three years. And his agenda faces skepticism from some observers who, though confident in his abilities, say he may have promised too much to deliver in four -- or even eight -- years.

“In my lifetime, I’m not expecting to be able to get on a subway on the Sunset Strip and go to the beach,” said Allen Hoffenblum, a Los Angeles-area political consultant who zeroed in on the new mayor’s most ambitious proposal, extending the Red Line to the beach in Santa Monica.

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As a candidate, Villaraigosa drew criticism for touting lofty goals without offering specific plans to achieve them. Villaraigosa acknowledges his agenda will face financial, political and bureaucratic obstacles, but he insists that Angelenos want a mayor who will lay out a clear path to greatness for their city, not tinker with its problems.

“I’ve never said that expanding the subway to the ocean would be something I would do in the first term,” Villaraigosa said. “What I’ve said is the next mayor has got to have a vision, to put together a plan for Los Angeles that includes expansion of the subway all the way to the ocean.”

Villaraigosa said he would not announce any initiatives or detail how he plans to carry out his many promises in today’s inaugural address. “I am going to ask people to dream and think big about Los Angeles,” Villaraigosa said. “I am committed to the idea that a great city is a city where we are growing and prospering together.”

His speech, titled “A City of Purpose,” will address broad themes, including education reform, the need for the city’s diverse ethnic groups to come together and the hope that the public will become more involved in improving Los Angeles, said Robin Kramer, the mayor’s chief of staff.

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In the campaign, Villaraigosa made promises that will require him to find more money -- in some cases, billions of dollars more.

A key promise of his campaign was that he would expand the Los Angeles Police Department by 1,300 officers.

He argued that the current force of 9,220 officers was insufficient for a city the size of Los Angeles, which has fewer officers per capita than other big cities, including New York and Chicago. The same argument was made by former Mayor James K. Hahn and several other mayoral candidates.

To pay for the new officers, as well as for more paramedics and gang-intervention programs, Villaraigosa wants to ask Los Angeles County voters to increase the sales tax by a half-cent.

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But winning voter approval would require Villaraigosa to lead an expensive and persuasive campaign. A similar measure failed to win the required voter support last year and still sparks intense opposition.

“I hope he doesn’t go that route. It’s an abysmal idea,” said Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. “It punishes taxpayers. It punishes residents.”

Villaraigosa has decided to put off going to county voters for a police tax at least until next year, according to spokesman Joe Ramallo. “The first order of business is to identify waste, fraud and inefficiency,” Ramallo said.

The administration’s idea is that the liberal Democrat and former union activist should first earn the trust of the voters before he asks them to help pay for his big ideas.

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Hoffenblum called that a smart strategy, noting that Villaraigosa must build the credibility needed to win passage of sales tax and other high-dollar initiatives.

“His first job is to create the stature necessary to be a successful mayor,” Hoffenblum said, adding that Villaraigosa’s role in averting a lockout of hotel workers was a good start.

The new mayor also pledged environmental initiatives, including a simple-sounding plan to plant 1 million trees.

But based on the experience of the city Department of Water and Power, which planted 15,000 trees last year, that proposal could cost $140 million.

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It also may take much longer than even two four-year terms. The DWP has planted just 37,000 trees in five years. At that rate, it would take 135 years to plant 1 million trees.

Villaraigosa also said he would take every “available” step to reduce air pollution from the Port of Los Angeles. A task force has drafted a plan to keep pollution at 2001 levels, but it would cost at least $11.4 billion over 20 years.

Even some proposals that drew little attention will require the mayor to find new funds. During the campaign, he belittled Hahn for failing to dedicate $100 million a year to the city’s affordable housing trust fund. But to carry out his promise to fully fund it, Villaraigosa will need an additional $50 million a year.

The mayor’s most costly campaign promise was his proposal for a multibillion-dollar expansion of the region’s mass transit system, which comes as state and federal funds for such massive projects have all but dried up.

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Villaraigosa’s marquee transportation proposal, which he repeatedly cited as evidence that he has a vision for the city’s future, is to extend the Red Line subway roughly 13 miles from its terminus at Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue down Wilshire to the ocean. That could cost about $2.7 billion.

But that’s just one of several transit proposals.

He has proposed extending the Red Line above ground from North Hollywood along Lankershim Boulevard into the northeast San Fernando Valley, which could cost $390 million.

He has proposed linking the Green Line to Los Angeles International Airport.

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An airport department proposal to connect the two with a people-mover system would cost $557 million.

And he wants to build the new Exposition Line light rail line 17 miles to Santa Monica, at an estimated cost of $1.1 billion.

In a sign that he is serious about trying to solve gridlock, Villaraigosa said he would exercise his right as mayor to become chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

But that agency’s budget for rail projects this year is $273 million, well below the multibillion-dollar price tag for the many projects Villaraigosa has proposed.

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He said his strategy would be to focus on one project at a time, to create momentum for his larger vision.

“You are going to see a very aggressive effort on my part to move up and expedite the Exposition Line, which ultimately will go to Santa Monica,” Villaraigosa said.

The city is considering whether to spend up to $40 million for the first half of the project, which would extend the line as far as Culver City.

There are legal hurdles to some rail projects, including a congressional ban on tunneling in the Mid-Wilshire area and a county prohibition on using sales tax revenue for subways.

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Undeterred, Villaraigosa has vowed to be an assertive advocate in Washington and Sacramento until more transit funds are allocated.

Some political observers believe that the charismatic new mayor will have a long honeymoon with voters and that the City Council will help him accomplish much of what he promised.

“He seems to be a leader who follows through on things, so I am quite optimistic he will pursue what he promised,” said Siegrun Fox Freyss, a political scientist at Cal State L.A.

Others note that Villaraigosa does not have to keep every one of his promises to be seen as a success, as long as voters believe he is making a good-faith effort.

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“He has to show some energy and some work being done,” said Xandra Kayden, senior fellow at the UCLA School of Public Affairs. “That means drafting some specific plans and getting cooperation from others.”

To show residents he is serious, Villaraigosa has drafted a 100-day plan for achieving some of his goals, although he does not plan to reveal it today.

Last week, Villaraigosa said he wanted to find efficiencies and spending cuts to avoid budget deficits that could eventually approach $300 million.

To do that, Villaraigosa would have to propose cuts equal to about 4% of the city’s nearly $6-billion budget.

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UCLA business professor Bill Ouchi sympathizes with Villaraigosa, but says the financial situation the mayor is inheriting could be worse.

The economy is humming and the real estate market is booming, providing property tax revenue that can be put to work expanding city programs.

When Richard Riordan became mayor in 1993, he brought in Ouchi to help find ways to fulfill his campaign promises despite a recession-squeezed budget.

“I remember we sat down in the first week with the leadership of the City Council and said we’re going to add 3,000 police officers and we’re going to do this and that, and we’re not going to raise taxes,” Ouchi recalled. “And they laughed in my face.”

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Ouchi and Riordan reorganized city government, pared waste and made police funding a priority. Riordan did add 2,200 officers, but only with substantial help from the federal government.

Ouchi says he thinks Villaraigosa can achieve his goals.

“If the general managers and the City Council members believe Mayor Villaraigosa is serious, that he is sincere and that he is going to follow through, then it can be done,” Ouchi said. “That’s leadership.”

City Administrative Officer Bill Fujioka said Los Angeles begins the fiscal year that starts today with a $140-million reserve fund, when the City Charter requires only a 2% reserve, about $78 million.

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In addition, the city is well below its self-imposed limit for debt and could borrow an additional $400 million, Fujioka said.

“We’re ready to meet his goals and objectives,” he said.

Villaraigosa will face an early test of his ability to control city spending. The contract for city workers represented by the Engineers and Architects Assn. is up for renewal, while the contract for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers comes up for renewal Sept. 30.

Both unions were among the few that endorsed Villaraigosa, a former labor leader, so some fear he will be tempted to reward them with big salary and benefit increases.

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“If he can get control of the payroll for city employees, it should be possible to do some of these things he has promised,” said Vosburgh, the taxpayer advocate.

“Unfortunately, under the Hahn administration, 90% of new revenue would go to wages and benefits for existing employees.”

Some observers, including Jack Kyser, senior vice president of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp., are confident Villaraigosa has the political skills to accomplish some of his more attainable goals early and thus build momentum for the tougher ones.

“He has major charisma and enthusiasm,” Kyser said. “That’s going to open a lot of doors.”

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Villaraigosa said Thursday that he was keenly aware that expectations were high.

“It’s not so much the promises. There’s expectations that I am actually going to deliver on them,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of work to do to meet those expectations.”

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Times staff writer Jessica Garrison contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

A long list of goals

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has outlined an ambitious agenda, much of it detailed on his campaign website. Many of his proposals would face financial or political obstacles.

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Public Safety

* Hire 1,300 additional police officers, add paramedics, improve 911 and expand gang-intervention and prevention.

* Increase police patrols in city housing projects.

* Implement short-term anti-terrorism measures at LAX and the port, such as installation of bomb-resistant glass.

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* Provide better equipment and training for police officers and firefighters who would respond to terrorist attacks.

* Expand the Police Department’s anti-terrorism division.

Airports

* Scale back the $11-billion Los Angeles International Airport plan, canceling plans to demolish terminals and build a central check-in center.

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* Expand service at the Palmdale and Ontario airports to spread flights around the region.

* Phase out noisier Stage 2 jets at Van Nuys Airport.

Transit

* Extend the Red Line subway along Wilshire Boulevard to the beach in Santa Monica and above ground to the northeast San Fernando Valley.

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* Extend the Gold Line light rail system to the San Gabriel Valley.

* Extend the Green Line to LAX.

* Connect the future Exposition Line to LAX.

* Develop a downtown connector to link the Blue, Gold and Exposition light rail systems.

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Roads

* Repair the thousands of potholes.

* Install reversible lanes on major streets.

* Open up diamond lanes on freeways to all traffic in non-rush hours.

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* Forbid construction during rush hour.

* Synchronize more traffic signals at major intersections.

Education

* Expand LA’s Best after-school program.

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* Promote the creation of smaller schools with more authority for teachers, parents and principals.

* Acquire the power for the mayor to appoint the seven members of the Los Angeles Unified School District board.

Environment

* Take every available step to reduce air pollution at the Port of Los Angeles.

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* Plant a million trees.

* Increase curbside recycling, including expansion to commercial buildings and apartments.

* Develop a waste-to-energy program.

* Speed up the city’s use of renewable energy, reaching 20% by 2010, rather than the current goal of 2017.

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* Subsidize homeowners and business owners who want to install affordable solar power systems.

* Convert the city’s vehicle fleet to clean fuels.

* Use 2,400 surplus city properties to create neighborhood parks, including a string of parks along the Los Angeles River.

* Turn unused rail right-of-ways into bicycle paths.

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Housing

* Require construction of new middle-class developments to include affordable housing.

* Establish Workforce Housing Zones with incentives to build entry-level, market-rate housing.

* Fully fund the city’s affordable-housing trust fund at $100 million a year.

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* Develop incentives to help police officers, teachers and firefighters buy their own homes.

* Use tax incentives to help families buy their first homes.

Health

* Set up an outreach program to make sure parents know how to sign up for free state health coverage.

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* Expand farmers markets and community gardens.

* Prevent contamination of water supplies.

Ethics

* Remove City Hall lobbyists from all commissions.

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* Require commissions to conduct business with contractors in public, not closed-door, meetings.

* Tighten rules on independent campaigns, including requiring 30 days’ notice of any plans to support or oppose candidates in city elections.

* Require city departments to list on their websites all contracts which are not competitively bid.

* Ban campaign donors from receiving no-bid contracts.

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* Require city contractors who are campaign contributors to disclose their contracts with each contribution.

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Los Angeles Times


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