Ron Kaye: Unraveling the redevelopment mess

Sooner or later, the bills come due in all our lives — even in the lives of government agencies.

Just ask the people who bought a house they couldn't afford or city officials who got addicted over the years to draining vast amounts of tax dollars from the state, from schools, from their own funds for general services to put them in a kitty called community redevelopment.

What began after World War II as a modest way to rehabilitate blighted neighborhoods became, after passage of Proposition 13 three decades later, a way for cities and counties to build parks, libraries, affordable housing, shopping malls, entertainment complexes, luxury condos and apartments, and a $52-million parking lot for a billionaire's art museum in downtown Los Angeles without the annoying problem of having to get two-thirds of the people to support higher taxes.

All too often, blight came to mean anything officials wanted, an entitlement of government to do whatever it wanted for whatever reason. Abuses by government agencies — like seizing one person's private property to give to another or massive public subsidies that mainly enriched the rich — became as common as successes that benefited communities by creating jobs, generating new revenues or improving the quality of life.

A year ago, Gov. Jerry Brown sought to put an end to all that by abolishing the state's 400 Community Redevelopment Agencies. No sooner did he win the fight to kill them than the Legislature provided a loophole to allow their resurrection if they turned over a combined $1.8 billion of their $5 billion in annual tax revenue to the state this year and a modest $400 million in future years.

Just before Christmas, the state Supreme Court ruled the loophole unconstitutional and set a Feb. 1 date for the death of the agencies.

Now, Glendale, Burbank, Pasadena and cities across the state want another replay through legislation that would extend the drop-dead date to April 15 or maybe next year or maybe never.

The irony of another resurrection of redevelopment agencies on Feb. 2, Groundhog Day, and the movie of that name in which events replay and replay over and over with changing scenarios was not lost last week on Glendale's new City Manager Scott Ochoa at a teleconference meeting of the San Fernando Valley Council of Governments.

“Some folks would say good riddance, now we can start all over,” Ochoa told staff and business leaders in a City Hall conference room last week and city officials in Los Angeles, Burbank and Santa Clarita listening on phone lines.

“The problem is the dysfunctionality of the state hasn't been rectified. We are going to continue to have this problem. It will be like Groundhog Day until all the money is gone.”

Cities are pulling out all stops to get the Legislature to give them a 10-week reprieve despite the governor's adamant opposition and the knowledge that they will need one reprieve after another to actually work out the complexities of how redevelopment will work in the future.

“The only thing you have time for in a two-month period is to get the cities to pay the $1.8 billion plus a premium for the heartache of this melodrama,” Ochoa said. “The idea that there's something behind door No. 2 is nonsensical at this point. It's not like there's a new idea.”

Unlike the abuses in L.A. and other cities, Ochoa, like officials in many smaller cities, can defend most of projects funded through redevelopment money in their communities, but as the governor argued, most of the money went to take jobs and business away from other communities in a way that produced few if any economic benefits to wider regions or the state.

Glendale officials can only see the damage the death of redevelopment agencies means to the city: No $10-million renovation of the library, no Central Avenue project, a fire sale of the Alex Theatre, no paseo to connect the Museum of Neon Art to Brand Boulevard and so maybe no museum, no parking for the Laemmle Theater project on North Brand so maybe no theater project.

For Ochoa, with his strong sense of history, this is a “Guns of August” moment, “where you light a fuse and a series of events that were inter-linked ultimately sparked World War I.“

Whether the Valley of Council of Governments and other agencies and private businesses can prevail in Sacramento seems doubtful given the budget deficits.

“We're going to get smacked because they aren't doing their jobs. This is just one more way to put the noose around cities' necks,” Ochoa said.

“Somebody has to step forward and say ‘I'll lead you there.'”

You have to wonder, though, that even if somebody did step forward in these conflicted times whether anybody would follow the leader. We seem determined to make things worse before we will come together and make them better.

RON KAYE can be reached at Share your thoughts and stories with him.

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