Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the city's top financial experts were stunned last fall when a steep drop in tax revenue punched a hole in the city budget -- forcing them to propose an array of fee hikes and cuts in public services.
But the city's $406-million budget shortfall is also a product of two pivotal policy choices made by Villaraigosa since taking office in 2005: adding 1,000 officers to the Los Angeles Police Department and hiking the pay of unionized city workers.
On paper, paying for the new officers looks easy. If the City Council approves the mayor's budget, annual trash fees will have been raised by more than $140 million since 2006. But hiring so many new officers is much trickier when home sales are flat, sales taxes are down and city employee pay raises have cost nearly $90 million extra with each successive year.
To continue the LAPD expansion in the midst of an economic downturn, Villaraigosa has called for reductions in library hours and supplies, animal shelter hours, park rangers and maintenance, summer recreation workers and arts programs.
With another grim year expected in 2009-10, the budget woes pose a major question for the mayor: Even if he reaches his goal of 1,000 new officers, can that rapid buildup -- his No. 1 priority -- be sustained?
As they review the mayor's budget, some council members aren't sure. Villaraigosa will have few options for big increases in fees next year. And Councilman Greig Smith, a Republican who is a reserve police officer, warned that the mayor is trying to hire too many officers too quickly -- a strategy that threatens to create a bigger budget mess by 2011, the year that all the new officers will be on the job.
"We're digging ourselves a hole," said Smith, who sits on the council's Budget and Finance Committee. "And the question is, is the hole so deep that we can't dig ourselves out?"
Three years into his term, Villaraigosa has his hard-fought goal of 1,000 new officers squarely within his sights. The LAPD will have added more than 800 by next year, just as the mayor asks voters to reelect him. And the number will reach 1,000 during the start of a second term, assuming he is reelected.
That initiative is coming at an increasingly steep price. In Villaraigosa's proposed 2008-09 budget, the cost of the police expansion is about $73 million, equal to nearly one-fifth of the city's budget shortfall. The next year, the cost of the LAPD buildup is expected to reach $114 million -- equivalent to nearly 40% of the budget shortfall projected for that year, $293 million.
Those figures do not take into account the additional employees needed to support the new officers: payroll clerks, training officers and maintenance crews, among others. The city's top budget officials are trying to determine, once those costs are factored in, whether the trash fee increase will cover the total cost of the buildup.
As recently as February, Villaraigosa warned that any slowdown in officer hiring would be greeted by his veto pen. And his advisors sound exasperated with pleas to slow police hiring or protect other programs from cuts.
There will never be a right time to expand the Police Department, regardless of the economy, said Deputy Mayor Sally Choi, who prepared this year's budget. With about 9,700 sworn officers, the LAPD is still small by big-city standards, mayoral aides said.
"In difficult times like this, you have to stick with the core values of the city, and that's ensuring public safety," she said.
The budget reflects the shift in priorities. In the two years since Villaraigosa started the officer-hiring plan, public safety -- police and fire protection -- has grown from 64% of the city's discretionary budget to nearly 70%, according to the city's chief legislative analyst's office. That means the share of all other programs is shrinking.
That fact has not gone unnoticed by advocates for parks, libraries and other services. Some who testified against the budget cuts last week said the Police and Fire departments should not go unscathed when money is scarce.
"They're saying we have to spend a vast amount of money on one resource in the city, and everything else has to be hung out to dry," said Kim Cooper, a resident of Lincoln Heights who co-founded Save LAPL -- Save L.A. Public Library -- earlier this year to fend off cuts and library fee hikes. "That's unfair, and I'm pro-cop."
Villaraigosa aides say the mayor is determined to avoid repeating the mistakes of his predecessors, who also ran for office on promises to expand the LAPD. A decade ago, then-Mayor Richard Riordan got within striking range of adding 1,000 officers only to see the council halt the expansion over fears about the plan's financial sustainability.
Five years ago, then-Mayor James K. Hahn fell into the same trap, with council members saying there wasn't enough money to support his planned LAPD expansion. Hahn's final budget added 130 officers.
"The reason that the prior two administrations failed to achieve their goal is because each of them found legitimate reasons to stop the hiring," said Villaraigosa spokesman Matt Szabo.
Szabo said the mayor had no intention of abandoning his commitment to adding 1,000 officers in four years. That refusal to change course infuriates some community activists, who say they don't understand why the city can't spread the goal over five years instead.
Park volunteer Kristin Sabo, who urged council members last week to restore park funding, said she worried that Villaraigosa was fixated on a particular time frame because progress had been slow on his plans to reform schools and expand public transportation.
"It's almost as if he's struggling to show that he can accomplish something big," said Sabo, who lives in Lake View Terrace.
To stave off deeper cuts, six civilian employee unions have called for an early retirement plan that could winnow out thousands of veteran employees in departments that don't involve public safety.
In addition to the new police officers, Villaraigosa's budget adds $15 million for police overtime -- an expense that has gone significantly over budget for years. Yet even as he bolsters public safety resources, the mayor must cope with the effect of the raises he has approved since taking office.
Pay increases approved over the last three years have added $89.2 million to this year's budget shortfall. Those contracts are most expensive for police officers and firefighters, given raises of 3% in 2006, 3.5% last year and 3.75% starting July 1.
The biggest increases in the LAPD buildup -- 284 new officers this year and the same number in 2009-10 -- have coincided with the region's economic downturn.
When Villaraigosa two years ago announced his plan for adding police officers, he called on homeowners and residents of small apartments to pay more for trash removal to help cover the cost. Under the plan, homeowners' sanitation fees were to increase from $11 to $28 over four years to help pay for the buildup.
The higher trash fees were designed not only to pay for the 1,000 officers but also to cover three years of police raises and the 130 new officers approved in the waning days of the Hahn administration, said City Administrative Officer Karen Sisson, L.A.'s top budget officer.
But as the economy softened, Villaraigosa and the council pushed the monthly trash fees to $26 in only 15 months. When the budget shortfall ballooned, the mayor proposed pushing it above $36 starting Oct. 1.
As homeowner groups have groused about the higher fees, union activists complain that they are being asked to bear the brunt of the economic downturn.
"The cultural aspect of the city, all the other services provided by the city, are being consumed by public safety," said Roy Stone, president of Librarians Guild Local 2626.
Still, council President Eric Garcetti said he had no interest in slowing the officer hiring plan. The city's loss of tax revenue is a much bigger share of the budget problem than the police expansion, he said.
"I don't believe [changing the pace of hiring] is open to debate, having talked to my colleagues," he said.
But Councilman Tom LaBonge said he would consider slowing the police expansion if it meant restoring services important to his constituents.
"If a reduction from 284 to 250 [new officers] will keep park rangers and libraries open, I'm certainly going to look at that," he said.