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A budget, and a vision, for L.A.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the City Council have a double task ahead of them. They must confront a serious cash-flow problem and take decisive, sober action to ensure that the city will have the money to pay its bills over the next 18 months. At the same time, they must identify the city’s mission for the coming decade and redesign its government into a lean, efficient operation dedicated to that mission and nothing else.

Time is short. Lower revenue projections mean City Hall may have to dip $50-million deeper into its emergency funds to get through the fiscal year that ends June 30, leaving the city with insufficient funds to meet new contingencies or to assure lenders that it will meet its obligations. It will not be enough now to merely budget more tightly for the coming year. If there are going to be job and service cuts -- and they appear inevitable -- they must begin in the coming weeks.

But a plan that makes ends meet today while failing to move the city toward a more focused vision of how to deliver services in the future would merely delay the reckoning and leave the government ill-equipped to serve its people in coming years. The mayor and the council face a difficult challenge, but they will be up to it -- if they muster the will.

City Hall’s recent track record in responding to fiscal crisis is poor. When Villaraigosa took office in 2005, he acknowledged that a structural deficit had long been papered over by heady economic growth and that it must be addressed. But he was slow to recognize that the gravy train had finally derailed and that there was no more time to tinker and trim. His action last year to consolidate a handful of small departments that had duplicative administrative staffs was appropriate, if overdue.

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But that was the easy part. Deeper -- and more strategic -- reorganization is necessary. Why, for example, does the city have a massive Information Technology Agency and also have tech people scattered among its departments? Why does it have seven different bureaus and agencies that trim trees? Which departments provide services that cannot be provided by the private sector or in conjunction with other agencies, and which departments exist merely to acknowledge some constituency or other?

The council has made things worse with hand-wringing and foot-dragging. It deserves credit for improving an early retirement program to clear millions of dollars in salary liability from the city’s ledger (just as Villaraigosa deserves credit for rejecting an earlier version that didn’t pencil out), but the council took so long to ratify the pact that much of the advantage has been lost. This time, swifter action is required.


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