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L.A.'s budget woes dominate City Council elections

No matter who wins Tuesday’s election, the job of governing Los Angeles City Hall is about to get much tougher.

Twenty-six candidates are vying for seven seats on a City Council that, within a matter of weeks, will consider slashing more jobs, more public services and more employee hours in an effort to close a $404-million budget gap.

In previous elections, candidates talked almost exclusively about neighborhood-level quality-of-life issues: traffic congestion, housing costs, illegal dumping. This year is different. With more than 3,500 city workers already cut from the payroll through layoffs, transfers and early retirement, debate has shifted to the possibility of fewer ambulances, reduced graffiti paint-outs and pay cuts for employees.

“The budget is driving L.A. politics right now,” said Raphael Sonenshein, political science professor at Cal State Fullerton. “How many issues do we talk about at City Hall that don’t come down to the budget right now? It’s reshaping [council members’] relationships with their constituents, with labor, with business.”

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Labor unions representing anxious city employees are looking to blunt the effects of anticipated cuts by throwing their weight behind candidates in the two most competitive races. In South Los Angeles, organized labor has spent more than $1 million in an effort to push Councilman Bernard C. Parks, perhaps the most vocal advocate of staffing reductions, into a May 17 runoff.

On the city’s eastern edge, those same unions have spent at least $76,000 to help Councilman Jose Huizar, a close ally of labor, withstand a challenge from businessman Rudy Martinez.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the council have already erased a $1-billion shortfall over the last two years by cutting library hours, scaling back Fire Department staffing, rolling back road repairs and various other measures. The deficit remains, however, and candidates are offering up other ideas.

In the San Fernando Valley, candidate Mitchell Englander has called for the city to get out of the business of running golf courses, community theaters and child care centers. In South Los Angeles, businessman Luis Montoya favors a freeze on police hiring. And across the city, various candidates — mainly challengers to the incumbents have proposed reducing council pay between 20% and 50%.

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Still, some contenders are campaigning as though the fiscal crisis can be solved with relatively little pain.

In Hollywood, video producer Stephen Box said he would abolish two major city departments — transportation and the Community Redevelopment Agency — without putting a single employee out of work. On the Eastside, neither Huizar nor Martinez would name a single program they would cut when asked to do so at a candidate debate.

And in the contentious race to unseat Parks, Forescee Hogan-Rowles, an executive with a nonprofit, has repeatedly staked out a position against layoffs and furloughs — both in the past and in the coming months. Hogan-Rowles, whose campaign has been buoyed by more than $1 million from public employee unions, vowed instead to expand an array of services in the South Los Angeles district, such as road repairs and sidewalk upgrades.

“We’ll be able to start moving on that as soon as we’re sworn in,” she told supporters last week.

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Behind the scenes, Villaraigosa’s budget team has been sending council members booklets showing that the magnitude of next year’s shortfall is a sum equivalent to the annual pay and benefits of 3,465 employees. Other high-level officials are telling neighborhood volunteers to brace for deeper cuts.

“Department heads … are telling me, ‘Get ready for the bloodbath. It’s going to be really bad,’ ” said Doug Epperhart, who serves on the Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council.

The budget meltdown has strained relations between Villaraigosa, who favors new reductions, and the Coalition of L.A. City Unions, which represents 20,000 civilian workers.

The mayor said last week that the city would save $320 million if each worker — not counting those at special agencies, such as the Department of Water and Power — volunteered to take a 10% pay cut. Villaraigosa said he had already led by example, by slashing his own salary 16% in each of the last two years.

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“If you take a 10% cut, that’s a gift that keeps on giving,” he added.

That message infuriated labor leaders, who said city workers have already taken their lumps by absorbing anywhere from 10 to 26 unpaid days off.

“It’s very easy for someone who enjoys a salary of $232,000 a year, has a taxpayer-subsidized mansion, chauffeured service to and from work, private photographers and personal help with all aspects of his life to say, just take a 10% cut,” said Victor Gordo, a lawyer for the coalition. “It’s much more complicated than that for the custodian who makes $38,000 a year.”

While Villaraigosa and the unions are staking out positions, the council has been divided between a small group of budget hawks, who have called repeatedly for layoffs and other cuts, and budget doves, who have tried to shield public employees from the worst of the pain.

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Huizar, running in a district that runs from Boyle Heights to Eagle Rock, has firmly sided with the doves, voting against cutbacks to libraries, parks and other services. That record has drawn praise from the city’s unions, which have sent thousands of mailers on his behalf.

On the other end of the spectrum is Councilman Greig Smith, a Republican who is stepping down after representing the northwest San Fernando Valley for eight years. Smith is hoping that Englander, his chief of staff, will prevail in a field of six candidates.

Councilman Tony Cardenas, who faces three poorly financed opponents, also represents the Valley and leans toward the hawks. Councilman Paul Krekorian, another Valley representative, sits somewhere in the middle and is seen as a shoo-in for reelection.

Councilman Herb Wesson, who represents part of South Los Angeles, hovers near the center but leans toward the doves. Like Krekorian, he has had a drama-free campaign.

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By contrast, Councilman Tom LaBonge has had a series of contentious debates with his two opponents, Box and businessman Tomas O’Grady. Both challengers have argued that the city is in deep trouble and deserves better decision-making on the budget.

O’Grady called for civilian and public safety employees to do their share by paying more toward their retirement benefits.

LaBonge said the city will need to reorganize if its revenues continue to drop. But he won’t be able to say whether layoffs are needed until after he meets with the city’s budget team.

That meeting, he said, won’t occur until after the election.

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david.zahniser@latimes.com

Times staff writer Maeve Reston contributed to this report


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