Even as city workers protested planned cuts outside, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa avoided talk of layoffs during his annual State of the City address Wednesday. He chose instead to cheerlead a proposed ballot measure that he said would allow the region to rapidly expand its transit system.
The mayor devoted only five paragraphs in his seven-page speech to his proposed budget, which is due to be released Friday. He has previously said the budget will include “a large number” of layoffs. Villaraigosa didn’t mention cuts to the city workforce in the speech, nor did he mention two tax increases that his top budget official has said will be necessary to preserve public safety.
Union leaders are locked in a battle with city budget negotiators, who recently asked city workers to give up pay raises scheduled for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Union representatives have refused to reopen contract talks, saying their members, who in recent years have agreed to help fund pension reform and a money-saving early-retirement program in exchange for the raises, have given enough.
City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana said after the mayor’s address that it will be impossible to close the $220-million budget shortfall without cutting some positions. He said some or all of the cuts could be avoided if employees agree to defer the raises.
Outside Paramount Studios in Hollywood, where Villaraigosa spoke to a crowd of several hundred city officials and community members, workers handed out postcards attacking the mayor for spending what they said was too much time traveling and not enough time managing the city. “Greetings from Los Angeles,” the postcards read.
The mayor has made frequent trips to Washington to lobby for transportation funds and to participate in events with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, of which he is president. He has also traveled to Charlotte, N.C., where this summer he will chair the Democratic National Convention.
In his speech, Villaraigosa said employee concessions and other measures helped save hundreds of millions of dollars, but said more pension reform was necessary. The mayor said he plans to ask workers to share in the increased cost of their health benefits.
“By working in partnership with the City Council, I am confident that we will let common sense serve the common good.” Villaraigosa said.
He claimed a host of other accomplishments citywide, including rising test scores in charter schools, low crime rates and improved community relations at the Los Angeles Police Department two decades after the L.A. riots.
“The Los Angeles of 2012 is a better city,” he said. “Somewhere in the heavens, Tom Bradley is smiling.”
He also pledged $2.5 million in funding to create an economic development nonprofit that would help replace the now-defunct Community Redevelopment Agency, and touted the city’s success in attracting new businesses, including Google, the headquarters of Lucky Jeans and two electric-car manufacturers.
“These firms could have gone anywhere,” Villaraigosa said. “They had many suitors.”
He said they chose Los Angeles because the city is creating the “economic ecosystem” where business can thrive. Part of that has involved streamlined building processes and suspending the business tax for new businesses during the first three years they are in the city, the mayor said.
But the emphasis of his speech, titled “Building Our Future Today,” was transportation.
Villaraigosa has pushed a plan to get the federal government to lend Los Angeles billions of dollars so officials can complete 30 years of transportation projects in 10 years. But that effort has been stalled by Republicans in Congress.
With some of the federal money in doubt, Villaraigosa called for the open-ended extension of Measure R, a half-cent sales tax increase approved by voters in 2008 that runs until 2039. He said it would allow the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority to raise billions of dollars for quicker construction of a subway extension to the Westside, a key downtown light-rail connection and other projects.
“Regardless of what Washington does, we are not going to wait another day,” Villaraigosa said.
City Councilman Paul Koretz said the mayor is right to press for the Measure R extension and emphasize transportation. “That’s the No. 1 issue in my district,” said Koretz, who represents the Westside.
But Koretz said he was surprised that the mayor did not talk more about the budget. Of the layoffs, the councilman said, “that’s certainly a fight I’m going to fight.”
“City workers have given and given and come up with creative solutions,” Koretz said. “You hate to go to them and ask them to give more.”