Villaraigosa calls for 3% budget cut

Zahniser is a Times staff writer

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Friday called for an “emergency overhaul” of the city’s budget, saying most departments must cut 3% of their costs through the end of the fiscal year.

One day after the city’s top financial expert proposed reductions to libraries, tree trimming and other services, Villaraigosa said dramatic and immediate action is now needed.

The mayor asked department heads to prepare new budgets for the first six months of 2009 by Dec. 1.

Villaraigosa, who plans to submit a revised citywide budget to the council within 10 days of that deadline, wants a vote on the matter no later than Dec. 31, said mayoral spokesman Matt Szabo.


“It is no longer sufficient to delay purchases, cut travel and sweep savings from accounts,” Villaraigosa wrote Friday in a letter to the city’s department heads.

Public safety agencies, including the police and fire departments, would see cuts of only 1% under the mayor’s proposal.

No reductions would be imposed on agencies that are considered separate businesses, such as the airport, harbor and Department of Water and Power.

The city needs to close a $110-million gap in this year’s budget and also faces an estimated $296-million shortfall for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Villaraigosa said he fears that the budget shortfalls could grow significantly if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposes new cuts to cities and counties.

Further complicating the city’s finances are efforts to settle scores of lawsuits that were filed over the Los Angeles Police Department’s treatment of protesters and journalists at a May 1, 2007, immigrant rights rally. One group of settlements, reviewed by the council this week, is expected to cost nearly $13 million

Then there is the ongoing debate over a $42-million elephant exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo. Animal-rights advocates have urged the council to halt work on the exhibit, even though $12 million has already been spent on the facility.

If the council agrees to do so, the city’s general fund -- which is responsible for basic services such as police, fire, libraries and parks -- might need to pay back as much as $10 million in grant money, according to Interim City Administrative Officer Raymond P. Ciranna.

(Although Villaraigosa said that reimbursement would not necessarily have to occur this year, Ciranna said the timing would depend in part on the wishes of the county officials who provided partial funding.)

The mayor said he considers layoffs to be a last resort.

In an effort to prepare for the 2009-10 fiscal year, department heads have already been instructed to prepare a trio of budget-cutting scenarios, including one that assumes cuts of up to 9% starting July 1.

“That would just decimate the department,” said Jon Kirk Mukri, general manager of the Department of Recreation and Parks, who said his agency would eliminate paddle boats at MacArthur Park and various festivals if such cuts were needed.

Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, who serves on the city’s Budget and Finance Committee, said the mayor and council members are trying to communicate the seriousness of the city’s financial plight.

“The message we’re sending is that we’re serious about this budget deficit, that this is unlike any budget year we’ve had in my recent memory,” she said.

Still, Greuel voiced her own doubts about one budget-cutting plan: eliminating $1 million for school crossing guards.

“It should not be the first thing that we put on the chopping block,” she said.