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Council Members Tap Accounts to Bolster Budget

October 13, 1987|VICTOR MERINA and RICHARD SIMON | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles City Council members officially reported spending $11.6 million last year, in line with their budgeted total for salaries and other expenses. But they actually spent nearly $680,000 more by dipping into the funds of other city departments.

The practice of quietly billing council expenses to accounts scattered through the city government was disclosed in a study of fiscal documents obtained by The Times through the Freedom of Information Act.

The inquiry showed that the City Council was immune from the budget-limiting policies of the rest of city government--including regular audits and the need to seek approval for exceeding budgets.

A review of city records showed that a system of financial transactions operated that blurred the flow of money to council offices.

"That system is not only deceptive, it's dishonest" to conceal money sources, Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores said.

City Atty. James K. Hahn, a former city controller, said there should be tighter controls over council spending.

"If I'm running over budget, I have to go back to the City Council, and in public view, explain why I need more money. . . . It wouldn't hurt them to go through the same thing that I have to go through," Hahn said.

The final expenditure reports for the 1986-87 fiscal year, provided by the city clerk, showed that the 15-member council spent $8.4 million for office expenses, with each expected to stay close to a $558,000 limit.

From that came each council member's $55,929-a-year salary, plus the pay of their staff members--the largest single expenditure. But some council members spend more than others for staff. Councilman Robert C. Farrell, for example, has the largest council staff with 21 employees, while Councilman Ernani Bernardi has the smallest with 12.

Council members also use their office expenditures to pay for office supplies, trips to conferences, newsletters and outside consultants. Last year, Councilman Bernardi and Councilwoman Gloria Molina also provided $70,000 and $100,000, respectively, from their office funds to pay for police overtime in their districts.

In addition, $2.3 million was set aside for the legislative analyst's office, which provides advice to the council on the budget and other city policy matters. And $1 million was set aside for general spending and other council-related salaries.

But beyond that, the council dipped into funds of the huge General Services Department and other city departments for spending that was not reported in the year-end summary of council spending in the council fiscal file in the city clerk's office.

Most of the unreported spending, $449,000, was for renovating or other work on council members' district offices and offices at City Hall for themselves and the media. Another $180,000 went for office and home security systems that were paid for by other departments. More than $50,000 was spent to purchase city-owned cars for council members' exclusive use, repairs and auto extras including cellular telephones, sunroofs and, in one case, a six-speaker concert stereo system.

Departmental funds, including those from the airport department, paid for business trips to Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro and other travels not included in the regular council budget. Additionally, the total costs of council members' office telephones and computers and a portion of their postage costs were similarly absorbed by the General Services Department and not reported as council spending.

At times, some council members were unaware of details of some of their own office spending. Flores, for example, said she did not know her office was paying $460 a month for a telephone system she had inherited from another council member.

Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky said he was shocked, after he got the bill last year, to find that the cost to remodel his 2,600-square foot City Hall office had more than doubled from the original estimate of $130,700. The remodeling was financed with Department of General Services funds.

Calls Figure Padded

Yaroslavsky, chairman of the council's fiscal committee, questioned the sharp increase and said the final figure was padded.

But a General Services official, who asked not to be identified, said that council members often ask for additional alterations, and department officials believe that they must comply.

Another council expenditure financed by the General Services Department and not reported in the council spending report is for automobiles.

Councilman Nate Holden drives a city-owned 1987 Buick Park Avenue equipped--also at city expense--with a four-note horn, a six-speaker concert sound system and a moon roof. Other council members' cars are also fitted with various extras, from alarm systems to leather-wrapped steering wheels.

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