With swing voters fixated on the issue of crime, Los Angeles mayoral candidates Richard Riordan and Michael Woo are tripping over each other to pledge the largest police force buildup in modern city history.
But the stump speeches and sound bites about putting thousands more officers on the streets without raising taxes conceal a tangle of legal, political and fiscal uncertainties that easily could render either candidate's scheme unworkable.
"To do what either of the mayoral candidates is talking about doing in terms of police hiring, within existing resources, is very, very difficult," said Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, the council's top budget specialist.
Indeed, what the candidates and their handlers promote as bold new ideas to pay for a steep, costly buildup of the 7,800-officer LAPD--down from a high of 8,400 three years ago--are largely dogeared plans that have languished for years in various stages of City Hall study and debate.
Riordan's proposal to add 3,000 officers within four years by pushing a fast-track lease of Los Angeles International Airport to a private operator rests on a shifting foundation of financial guesswork and conflicting opinions about whether the plan is legal.
Woo first called for boosting the police force by 1,000 officers through a new tax, but that proposal collapsed with the defeat of a ballot measure last month. Last week, he presented a proposal to build a 10,000-officer force in four years through cuts in other spending, budgetary shifts and the reassignment of civilian City Hall employees to free desk-bound officers.
Some of Woo's figures are questionable, the prospect of City Council approval appears dim and even Woo aides concede that threatened state budget cuts could hamper the proposal.
Woo's proposal "is a layoff plan" and would be "extraordinarily painful and disruptive to other services on which many people in this city depend," Yaroslavsky said. He estimated that it would require about 1,000 layoffs--an action contrary to the prevailing political will at City Hall.
Riordan's plan is even "more pie in the sky," Yaroslavsky said, in part because it appears extremely unlikely that various legal barriers in federal law can be overcome to permit the city to siphon profits out of the moneymaking facility.
Indeed, federal law and contracts generally have required that airport-generated revenues remain at those facilities, if they receive federal funds, officials say. LAX has received hundreds of millions of dollars in Federal Aviation Administration grants, which the city could be forced to return if it drew money from the airport without federal permission.
The Los Angeles city attorney's office has not yet "found a way to transfer money off the (airport) site," said City Administrative Officer Keith Comrie, the city's chief fiscal officer. "That's the significant issue that has to be decided first."
Riordan insists that his plan requires no change in federal law, citing in part legal opinions generated by former officials in President George Bush's Administration, which strongly favored contracting out public facilities and services. He also cited an executive order by Bush last year that directs federal agencies to cooperate with such privatization efforts.
But the new Administration of President Clinton may not have the same appetite for turning public facilities over to private operators--a move strongly opposed by organized labor, which helped Clinton win the White House.
"We have not yet developed a policy on privatization," said Hal Paris, a Washington spokesman for Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena.
And Fred O'Donnell, a Los Angeles spokesman for the FAA, said at this point "money cannot be taken off the airport" for other city services.
Despite Riordan's optimism, overcoming such legal obstacles may not be easy.
There are additional uncertainties about just how much money the airport might generate.
Relying heavily on a year-old city study, Riordan said he will pay for the 3,000 new officers through a 30-year LAX lease that could generate a payment of $250 million upfront and annual payments starting at $130 million and rising to $700 million.
But Mark Brown, a private consultant who helped prepare the 1992 study, said it never was meant to be the basis for developing such spending proposals. Based on a string of assumptions that could--and in some cases have--changed, the study was chiefly a vehicle for comparing the relative benefits to the city of retaining the airport, selling it or leasing it, Brown said.
The consultant said he "shudders every time" he hears the report's figures cited in terms of budget talks or police funding plans. "The purpose of the analysis wasn't to estimate (potential revenues) with any precision," he said. "One caveat of the study--easily overlooked--was that the numbers should not have been used as a basis for estimating" revenues that would be available for other city services.