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If the Public Decided On Next $4.25 Billion, Would Choices Resemble CRA's?

June 18, 1989|MICHAEL BODAKEN and LARRY GROSS and ANTHONY THIGPEN | Michael Bodaken is a senior attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. Larry Gross is executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival. Anthony Thigpen is executive director of Jobs with Peace

Did you know that billions of taxpayer dollars will be spent on shaping the future of Los Angeles by an unelected board of seven men and women? Did you know that decisions on how this money is spent are being made without adequate input from the public or its elected representatives?

Currently, huge amounts of property-tax dollars in Los Angeles are collected and spent by the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency board, whose members are appointed by the mayor. More than $620 million in downtown property taxes and secured bonds have already been diverted to the agency. Soon, the Los Angeles City Council will decide whether to give the CRA an additional $4.25 billion in projected taxes to be generated by future downtown development. While reasonable minds may differ as to how the tax money should be spent, everyone would agree that these decisions should be made in an open public process.

While a council member may initiate the development of CRA projects in his or her district, it is the CRA board that makes overall development decisions in Los Angeles. The board controls hundreds of millions of tax dollars generated by 17 redevelopment areas--from Hollywood to downtown and from the projected Watts redevelopment area to Bunker Hill--amassing a $516-million annual budget that rivals the total amount of money the City Council has available for spending on planning and related matters.

Indeed, the CRA and city attorneys agree that the current structure does not even permit the City Council to modify major development agreements made by the board. It can only vote "yes" or "no"--and voting "no" means stopping an entire project, an almost impossible task. The governor has a line-item veto on the state budget, but the City Council must accept or reject the CRA budget in its entirety. Thus, the City Council has control, for example, over whether a social-services agency contract should be funded for $10,000 under city auspices, but little authority over major multimillion-dollar policy decisions. This lack of control is nowhere more vividly demonstrated than in these examples of recent irresponsible CRA board decisions:

--While the county debated the closing of essential mental-health facilities, the CRA board authorized a $1.5-million loan to the financially troubled Stock Exchange nightclub downtown.

--In a city where thousands of homeless sleep on the streets, CRA records demonstrate that the agency has destroyed more low-cost housing than it has built.

--According to a Grand Jury audit, the CRA has misled the public and the City Council by dubbing renovated Skid Row hotel rooms and cots in shelters "family housing" in reporting its housing record to city and state officials.

--The CRA board cut a deal with Los Angeles County in which the agency would permit the county to build two skyscrapers on Bunker Hill or pay the county up to $40 million in property taxes--all done with minimal public disclosure.

The present situation is clearly unacceptable. The City Council could appoint a council oversight committee that would provide earlier review of the budget, redevelopment work plans and other land-use decisions. However, the council still would not have the legal authority to modify a decision made by the CRA board. The reform gives the council more review, but no more control, over the expenditure of the $4.25 billion.

There is another option. The City Council could use a coming vote to gain control over these property tax dollars. It can create a Community Redevelopment Commission, which it would appoint. The commission could take charge of the present staff and resources of the CRA. State law provides that the council can retain as much authority over the commission as it sees fit. If the council wishes to have a line-item veto or modify development decisions, the commission structure allows it to do so.

Most important, the commission would be appointed by the City Council, which is directly accountable to the public. The City Council would ultimately have control over development decisions and more than $4 billion in redevelopment money.

If you had the power to decide how to spend $4.25 billion, what programs would you fund? Advocates for the poor insist that all of the money should go for critical needs: affordable housing and shelters for the homeless; decent and affordable health and child care; better education for our children and job training for the unemployed. Others take a different view, saying that half of the money should be used for CRA-built housing and the other $2 billion spent subsidizing CRA's pet downtown projects.

Whatever one's view on how these tax monies are spent, it should be obvious that our elected representatives and the public must make the decisions about future development in Los Angeles--not a non-elected board whose spending priorities are so at odds with the public will.

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