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California Elections : Bradley Claim of Fiscal Conservatism Takes Some Hits From Critics

One in a Series on the Records of the candidates for Governor

October 17, 1986|VICTOR MERINA | Times Staff Writer

In the opening words of a 30-second campaign commercial, an unseen actor reviews the fiscal record of the longest-serving mayor in the history of Los Angeles and in a voice rapt with conviction praises his stewardship.

"Tom Bradley's done what no big city mayor or California governor's ever done. Bradley's balanced the budget for 13 straight years," the announcer intones before going on to cite the mayor's role in luring the 1984 Summer Olympic Games without spending tax dollars and establishing an anti-drug program for children and a toxic strike force for polluters.

The television spot, promoting the Bradley gubernatorial candidacy, portrays a fiscal conservative who has kept the nation's second largest city financially sound and running smoothly during his four terms as mayor. Over that period, his supporters say, Bradley guided Los Angeles through some tough economic times with little disruption to city residents and minimal pain to their pocketbooks.

That image, however, is disputed by Republican Gov. George Deukmejian--Bradley's opponent in November--who tells voters that the mayor is a liberal Democrat masquerading as a fiscal conservative. Derisively referring to Bradley as "Tax Hike Tom," Deukmejian accuses the mayor of saddling Los Angeles residents with four tax increases--a contention that Bradley calls "a deliberate deception and distortion."

Deukmejian and his supporters also scoff at the mayor's boast of 13 straight balanced budgets and contend that Bradley has merely ordered higher taxes to maintain that balancing act.

Although the fiscal debate is overshadowed by more publicized issues in the gubernatorial race, Bradley's record as a fiscal manager has been touted by the mayor and ridiculed by his opponent as an accurate indication of what kind of job Bradley would do in Sacramento.

To his supporters, Tom Bradley is a mayor whose intimate knowledge of the city budget and low-key administrative skills have steered Los Angeles through economic downturns and through the financial uncertainty of the post-Proposition 13 era. He oversees a municipality with the highest bond ratings and a financially healthy airport and harbor, they argue.

Called Overly Cautious

To critics in city government, Bradley has been an overly cautious mayor whose attention to minutiae and nonconfrontational style have kept him from exerting effective leadership. They contend that he often shows a lack of control over city departments and is slow to respond to crises. They cite as an example the deterioration of the city sewer system and delays in repairs that will cost residents in skyrocketing sewer service charges.

According to a 1984 study for the Los Angeles Taxpayers Assn., Los Angeles has the second highest utility users' tax in the state, is tied for the highest hotel-motel bed tax and has a business tax per capita that is three times higher than the county average.

And even as Bradley points to an efficient administration, some members of a blue-ribbon committee he appointed in 1983 claim that their panel identified ways to save tens of millions of dollars through possible budget cuts and streamlined operations--many of which were ignored by the mayor and City Council.

Bradley himself dismisses most of that criticism, but he bristles at Deukmejian's suggestions--made at recent campaign stops--that the mayor's record is one of swollen budgets and tax increases.

'Absolutely Untrue'

"All you have to do is look at the record and see that that is absolutely untrue," Bradley told The Times. "I don't know if the governor has the wisdom to know that, but I have to assume that he has budget experts who can look at figures and know that that's not true."

What kind of fiscal manager has Tom Bradley been for Los Angeles?

The picture that emerges--from interviews and an examination of budget documents covering Bradley's four terms and 13 years in office--is that of a mayor steeped in the complexities of the municipal budget who is at home with the small details and mundane demands of local government.

He is a chief executive who grills his department heads privately about their budget requests yet has clashed openly with several police chiefs over their budgets and policies. Bradley once joined forces with business in persuading the City Council, and then the voters, to approve limits on police and firefighter pensions that were consuming an increasing share of a strapped city budget.

His reputation as a fiscal conservative also may have been forged as much by circumstance as by his own philosophy.

'Pretty Lean Years'

"The years I was there, when Bradley was mayor, were pretty lean years," said former City Administrative Officer C. Erwin Piper, who served for six years as Bradley's chief budget officer. "No mayor, I don't care who it may have been, could have been a financial liberal during that period."

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