The drive to slash spending at Los Angeles City Hall is starting to crumble, as a growing number of City Council members waver in the face of angry constituents, disgruntled community groups and powerful union leaders.
With a vote scheduled Wednesday on whether to eliminate 1,000 jobs to help counter the city’s $208-million budget shortfall, some members have begun speaking out against the various plans to scale back services and shut the city’s smallest departments.
A majority of the council’s Budget and Finance Committee has refused to sign off on the job-cutting plan.
Councilman Jose Huizar suggested that the city balance its books by borrowing more money. And Councilman Bill Rosendahl vowed to protect the city’s calligraphers, the handful of artists who design ornate proclamations that elected officials hand out to constituents.
“Whatever we need to do to preserve it, I want to do,” he said.
The resistance from at least a third of the council’s 15 members throws into question a major component of the city’s financial rescue strategy. And it has exasperated the council’s budget hawks, who warned that the city would fall into financial ruin if unpleasant decisions were not quickly made.
If council members try to shield each department that comes out to protest, Councilman Greig Smith said, “then we’re going to come out of this right where we were expecting to be on July 1st: We’re going to be out of money, out of cash and bankrupt.”
Smith said he still believes that the council will muster the eight votes needed to approve the job cuts, which could result in layoffs or the transfer of employees to vacant positions unaffected by the budget crisis.
The city’s top budget analyst, City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana, sounded more nervous.
“The choices are not going to get any easier, and any delays will only result in bigger cuts later,” he said.
Santana arrived at City Hall six months ago and, after assessing the city’s deep financial hole, began trying to charm, cajole and even scare council members into scaling back expenses.
But as the budget picture has grown more dire, his proposals have drawn fire from neighborhood councils, arts advocates and public employee unions.
Labor leaders said they are open to shrinking the workforce as long as each targeted employee is moved safely into another vacant position.
Meanwhile, council members Paul Koretz, Janice Hahn and Richard Alarcon said the city should avert layoffs by coming up with more money, such as taxing billboards and securing federal stimulus funds.
“I am absolutely not committed to doing a thousand layoffs until we have worked with our unions as partners,” Koretz said.
One sign that council members were having misgivings came last week, when Councilman Dennis Zine claimed not to know who came up with the estimate of possible job cuts.
Zine was, in fact, one of six elected officials who had signed a memo that asked Santana to develop that list of 1,000 potential layoffs.
On Monday, Rosendahl, Huizar and Koretz voted to block a proposal to fold the tiny Department on Disability into two other city agencies.
They criticized a plan to eliminate 100 employees of City Atty. Carmen Trutanich. And they insisted that the council preserve the Human Services Department, which sends mediators into high schools to reduce ethnic tensions.
Santana also praised the agency but said it needs to close anyway. “We can’t afford it,” he said.
Even if backers of Santana’s plan find eight votes, the city will still need to drain its 189-million reserve fund to get through the next five months. That concept unnerves some city leaders.
Huizar said the city should borrow more money rather than deplete its reserve.
The city, like any family, should look for “unconventional ways” to address the crisis, he said.
“If I’m facing hard times . . . I’m going to go to my uncles. I’m going to go to my aunt. I’m going to ask them to borrow money,” Huizar said. “But I’m going to tell them: ‘You know, I’ve got this ’67 Chevy. I could sell it a year from now and maybe I’ll pay you back with that.’ ”
“Can we do anything like that?” he asked the city’s budget advisors.
Policy analyst Natalie R. Brill said such a move would send a bad message to credit rating agencies.
“What you’re basically telling everyone is that you don’t have enough money to cover your expenditures,” she said.