L.A. mayor visits City Council to urge quick action on budget


Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Tuesday made a rare address to the City Council to urge quick action on proposals to lay off workers, cut departments and privatize city parking garages, warning that any delay could force the city into a “financial tailspin.”

The mayor, greeted by boos from the audience of mostly city workers, said layoffs both this year and next would be unavoidable. He dismissed arguments from some council members that the city’s $212-million deficit -- and the $485-million shortfall forecast for 2010-11 -- could be addressed without sending out pink slips.

“There just aren’t unlimited options here,” Villaraigosa told the council. “We can’t continue to say no to everything. We can’t say no to layoffs, no to furloughs, no to department eliminations. . . . The fact is we can’t sustain this business model.”

Later, the council agreed to eliminate the environmental affairs department and to seek proposals from private companies to operate the convention center. Members also agreed to open negotiations for a public-private partnership of the L.A. Zoo with the nonprofit Greater Los Angeles Zoo Assn.

Miguel Santana, the city’s top budget analyst, said the council took a major step by adopting a three-year plan to reduce the city’s structural deficit.

“Many of the savings can’t be quantified at this point in time, but it was very clear the council is interested in changing the business model of the city,” he said.

The mayor fielded mostly polite questions from council members for nearly two hours just days after publicly expressing frustration about the group’s indecision last week on dealing with the city’s shortfall, including his call to eliminate 1,000 city jobs.

Before Villaraigosa spoke, Council President Eric Garcetti defended the council, saying it “didn’t slow down one day on the layoffs.” Last week, the council approved a motion stating “that no layoffs of city personnel take place in the next 30 days,” but members called for a list of 1,000 positions that could be cut.

“There was no failure to act,” Garcetti said.

Both Villaraigosa and Garcetti tried to downplay any conflict between them, taking shots at media reports for creating a perception that they were at odds.

During his address, Villaraigosa also pushed for the city to tap into hundreds of millions of dollars that could be raised by privatizing parking garages and meters, as well as the zoo and convention center.

“This is a crisis, and we must act accordingly,” the mayor said.

Villaraigosa was careful to avoid uttering the word “bankruptcy,” but he acknowledged that if the city became insolvent he could be held personally liable under federal bankruptcy laws and warned that city finances could be left in the hands of others -- implying the courts. “I am not prepared to cede that authority to anyone,” he said.

The give-and-take between the council and the mayor was generally cordial, though Councilwoman Janice Hahn scolded him for not pressing agency heads to work harder to collect delinquent taxes or find job vacancies at L.A.’s airports and harbor for city workers facing possible layoffs.

Councilman Greig Smith also pressed the mayor to explain how the city got to a point where layoffs and the elimination of 1,000 city positions became the “only option on the table.”

Villaraigosa said that, in part, it was caused by negotiations with unions last year over various concessions, including an early retirement program. That process is expected to save $47 million this year and $111 million in the fiscal year that starts July 1.

“We all took too long,” he said. “They took too long in their negotiations, and saying ‘no’ to virtually everything. We took too long in not making a tough decision.”

The mayor’s and council’s fitful efforts to tame the city deficit are being watched closely by the finance industry, which the city depends on for short-term loans that pay salaries and bills.

Two credit rating agencies expressed concern Monday about Los Angeles’ precarious financial position, noting the council’s indecision last week.

On Thursday, Villaraigosa said he would order department heads to start the layoff process immediately, excluding police officers, and to start notifying workers once other employees are shifted to vacant positions not paid from the city’s general fund.

In a letter sent earlier this week to the city’s public employee unions, budget analyst Santana named the 1,000 positions he believes could be eliminated. That list identified 48 tree surgeons and four senior gardeners in the Bureau of Street Services, who are responsible for trimming the city’s street trees. It also included 89 workers in child care centers operated by the Department of Recreation and Parks.

Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.