The Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday got down to the grim business of slashing spending to make up for an expected $530-million budget shortfall, starting with a possible police hiring freeze, mass layoffs and mandatory unpaid furloughs for city workers.
The recommended cuts, which were passed out of the council’s Budget and Finance Committee, would eviscerate Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s police hiring program and almost certainly lead to significant cutbacks for parks, libraries, street-paving programs and other city services.
Hiring an additional 1,000 officers has been one of Villaraigosa’s top policy objectives since he took office in 2005, and thus far he has added 750 officers, for a total of 9,883. A hiring freeze would nearly wipe out those gains, since about 520 officers leave through normal attrition every year and would not be replaced.
Councilman Greig Smith, a budget committee member, argued that the city simply does not have the money to add more officers, saying that the action, while difficult, would only reduce the police force to a level that existed a few years ago.
“We can’t afford this hiring plan. It’s going to bankrupt us,” Smith said. The committee voted 3-2 in favor of the cut.
A spokesman for the mayor called the vote “irresponsible,” and noted that the council committee restored funding for special redevelopment and transportation projects in members’ districts.
“The council voted today to put slush over safety,” said Matt Szabo, the mayor’s spokesman. “At the same time the committee voted to gut the Police Department, they pumped millions back into their special slush funds.”
The $7.05-billion budget recommendation now goes to the full council, which will begin deliberations Monday and must pass a budget by June 1.
Council members and the mayor said the severity of the budget cuts could be dramatically reduced if the public employee unions agree to major concessions on salaries and benefits. City officials and labor representatives are currently negotiating a list of possible options -- including employee buyouts, a salary freeze and furloughs -- to avoid the need for widespread layoffs.
But Councilman Bernard C. Parks, chairman of the budget committee, said it would be irresponsible for the council to assume savings from a union agreement that remains in doubt.
Along with the freeze in police hiring, the budget committee recommended laying off 800 civilian city workers and mandating that all civilian employees take 26 unpaid furlough days during the fiscal year that starts July 1. The layoffs are in addition to 400 job cuts previously approved by the council. Police officers and firefighters would be exempt.
“We will be out of cash sometime in the spring. We have to bring down our rate of expenditures quickly and significantly,” said Gerry Miller, the council’s top budget analyst.
Villaraigosa on Tuesday asked the council to declare a fiscal emergency and to grant him the authority to lay off 1,000 city workers beginning July 1, and up to 2,000 more later in the year. The mayor said that if his request is approved, he would also require up to 26 furlough days for civilian city employees starting next month. The furloughs would amount to a 10% pay cut.
The mayor said he remains hopeful that an agreement can be reached with the unions, but he has little choice but to plan for the worst. City tax revenues are expected to drop by $300 million in 2009-10, and L.A.'s budget gap is expected to grow to more than $1 billion in 2010-2011, because of investment losses in the city’s pension systems.
“I understand that these steps are painful,” Villaraigosa said. “But the fact of the matter is, the economy is what it is. Revenues are down. This is an historic budget deficit.”