For more than a decade, merchants in San Pedro have regarded the community's parking meters as piggy banks that would one day finance a new downtown parking lot.
Under a Los Angeles parking-lot acquisition program, all money collected from parking meters is placed in trust funds to pay for city parking lots and meters.
But recently, when merchants tried to cash in on the program, they found the San Pedro account did not have enough to buy the lot they had picked out on 6th Street. The San Pedro parking-meter fund, which they expected to contain $225,000, was instead $12,000 in the hole.
"The money was taken from us," said Rick Gaydos, president of the San Pedro Revitalization Corp., a nonprofit group of business leaders. "(And) the city never told us about it."
The deficit has sparked criticism of a 14-year-old city program designed to pay for new city-owned parking lots in the city's many small business districts, including those in Wilmington, West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. Meter revenues collected from those areas--about $9 million a year--are designed to be returned to each parking district in ways that will make those districts more accessible to business customers.
But during three years, beginning in 1981, a total of $8.8 million was removed from the parking-lot accounts to pay other transportation costs, including the salaries of some city employees, because of shortages in the city budget, said Phyllis Currie, an assistant city administrative officer.
The City Council approved the fund transfers as part of yearly budget adoptions, with some members unaware they were damaging the parking-lot acquisition program, according to Los Angeles City Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores. Flores said she voted to approve the budget in those years with no idea the money was being diverted.
"It was really a shock . . . and a swindle," she said in an interview Tuesday. "When these meters were put in, the city said to the businessmen, 'We know you need more parking lots,' and they set up this trust fund.
"In the meantime, all our money's gone."
Flores, who represents San Pedro, introduced a measure last week that would seek to restore those lost funds to the various parking-meter districts, whose trust accounts now total about $19.5 million. But even as the city's finance and transportation committees prepare to consider the proposal--possibly this month--other council members conceded there may be no place from which to draw those funds.
"That money's lost and gone forever; there's nothing we can do about it," said Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, chairman of the three-member Finance Committee.
City budget planners decided to tap the parking-meter funds in 1981 as Los Angeles struggled to recover from Proposition 13, the property-tax limitation initiative, Currie said. The money was used for salaries of Transportation Department employees and for projects like installing stop signs and repainting curbs, she said.
According to reports from the city administrative office, Councilman Gilbert Lindsay's inner-city district lost $2.4 million during the three years the funds were transferred, the most among the city's 15 council districts. Losses in other districts ranged from $1.7 million in Yaroslavsky's Westside district to less than $100,000 for San Fernando Valley council members Joy Picus ($95,000) and Ernani Bernardi ($52,000).
Valley council members Howard Finn and Hal Bernson did not lose funds because there are no parking meters in their districts.
The amount of remaining funds varies from district to district. Lindsay's district, for example, still has nearly $5 million in parking-meter revenues. Yaroslavsky's district has $5.4 million, while Picus' district has a $141,000 deficit and Bernardi's district is in the red $756,000, according to the city administrative office.
In most cases, the impact of the transfers also has varied from district to district.
In San Pedro, where the transfers emptied the parking-meter fund, money was not available last year to buy the $175,000 lot that merchants had hoped would boost revitalization efforts. Gaydos of the merchants' group said the city might be willing to loan money to San Pedro from other parking-meter accounts, but such a loan would have to be repaid from future meter revenues.
Merchants hoped to use those future revenues to buy additional lots as the downtown business district develops, he said.
"This is hampering the revitalization of downtown San Pedro," Gaydos said. "We shouldn't have to borrow money when there are funds that ought to be there."
Yaroslavsky said the impacts are difficult to gauge in the Westside. The district's account still totals more than $5 million, but the larger problem is to find available property. Residential groups whose members live near commercial areas often do not want new parking lots placed next to their homes, he said.