In a stinging override of Mayor Richard Riordan's veto, the Los Angeles City Council voted Tuesday to scale back police recruitment next year unless voters agree in November to tax themselves to pay for more cops.
Voting to override four of the mayor's five vetoes on the city's $4-billion budget, lawmakers approved funding for 450 police recruits next year rather than the 710 that Riordan had requested, and withheld $12 million in police overtime funds in a special account in case anticipated revenues fall through. The council also refused to use $10 million in public transit funds for 50 miles of street repaving.
"This is not an issue of who cares more about public safety. The issue is fiscal responsibility," Councilman Mike Feuer said before the 10-4 vote, which will pose a major obstacle to Riordan's effort to fulfill a 1993 campaign promise to hire 3,000 more officers or step aside.
"I could wrap myself in the flag of more police, more police, more police. . . . It would be very easy, but it would be dishonest," said Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, voicing concerns over how the city would pay new police officers down the road. "The easiest thing is always to vote like there is no tomorrow. But tomorrow eventually comes. Everybody who runs a household knows the bills come due."
Riordan and Councilman Joel Wachs--who the mayor had said would line up votes to sustain his budget vetoes--were both out of town Tuesday on vacation, leaving the 710-officer plan without a leader on the council floor.
But over the past week, the budget battle stretched outside City Hall. Politicians met with newspaper editorial boards and debated one another on talk shows. Riordan had an unusual series of private meetings with key council members. And last weekend, he took the unprecedented step of sending letters to constituents in several neighborhoods, asking them to lobby council members for his police plan.
Those efforts failed. At the last minute, Councilmen Nate Holden and Mike Hernandez decided to join their eight colleagues who originally voted to slow police expansion, sending Riordan the most wounding defeat of his three-year administration.
"Fewer cops and higher taxes are not exactly the tough choices I had in mind when I presented my budget to the City Council," Riordan quipped via news release after the votes were counted. "Angelenos deserve, demand and expect more from their elected officials, including the courage to say 'no' to business as usual and 'yes' to the goals and priorities of taxpayers."
Siding with the mayor on police expansion were Councilmen Richard Alarcon, Hal Bernson, Marvin Braude and Rudy Svorinich.
"This is a gross mistake," Alarcon said. "I urge you to continue the course of crime reduction, to continue the course of increasing safety in our communities, to continue the course of economic development in our city."
Bernson pointed out that Los Angeles has 2.37 officers per 1,000 residents, compared to 4.67 officers per 1,000 in Chicago and 5.18 per 1,000 in New York City. Svorinich said the override was "not turning Los Angeles around, [but] shifting it into reverse."
Police Chief Willie L. Williams could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but LAPD spokesman Lt. Anthony Alba said that "whatever happens, the chief will just work with it."
Tuesday's action ends six weeks of City Hall sparring that saw two of Riordan's chief council allies--President John Ferraro and Budget Committee Chairman Richard Alatorre--attack the centerpiece of his spending plan. But both sides also have joined in launching a new council committee to search for ways to finance police expansion.
The new panel's first task will be to divine a way to keep all $53 million proffered last month by the Clinton administration to hire new cops.
That money was supposed to pay for 710 recruits, and by funding only 450, the council risks losing $19.5 million of the grant, which requires matching city funds. But some at City Hall believe that the city could get the full grant by slowing police attrition, thus boosting the net number of new officers.
"It is inconceivable to me that we would turn back these federal funds . . . to send these dollars to other cities so they can hire new police officers," Riordan said in his statement.
Last year, the council made few changes in Riordan's proposed budget and the mayor vetoed nothing. In 1994, Riordan issued 13 vetoes, most on relatively small items. The council overrode all but one.
Because it involves the centerpiece of the mayor's administration, the current struggle has been intense.
Silent during Tuesday's hourlong debate were council members Laura Chick, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, and Mark Ridley-Thomas, Riordan's chief council critic--both vocal critics of Riordan's budget over the past month.
Braude, who faces the toughest reelection campaign of any council member next year, voted to sustain the mayor's police vetoes but offered sobering comments about the budget.
"I don't think we have a real budget here. We have a hopeful budget, a wish list," Braude said, cautioning that revenues such as a $20-million transfer from the Harbor Department and a $15-million tax on utilities that cut up city streets may fall through. "It is important that the public not be given the impression that this is indeed a balanced budget. It is not."
Times staff writer Jean Merl contributed to this story