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Feds Shouldn't Be Funding Local Police

Question: What happens when the grant money runs out? Answer: Taxes must go up.

October 13, 1998|JOEL FOX | Joel Fox is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn

Manna from Washington is falling on Los Angeles. With great fanfare on an LAX runway, Vice President Al Gore announced a three-year, $133-million federal grant to add 710 officers to the LAPD. While there is some debate around City Hall about taking the money, the prevailing sentiment seems to be: Don't look a gift horse in the mouth.

The centuries-old gift horse cliche refers to a time when a horse buyer looked first at the animal's teeth to calculate the horse's age and condition. If the horse was given as a present, however, it was considered impolite to make such an examination.

Los Angeles officials should ask this gift horse to open wide. Before accepting the federal money, local officials should have some idea of the consequences this gift will have for future city budgets.

Call it horse sense.

In all probability, this addition to the police budget will mean trimming the budget in nonpolice areas or a tax increase when the federal money dries up.

Proof of this hypothesis is being played out in this November's election in Sacramento. A measure on the Sacramento ballot is asking city and county residents to raise the local sales tax by one-quarter cent. In the official ballot booklet mailed to voters, supporters of the tax argue: "Thanks to federal grants, our community-oriented policing program has put over 300 additional officers on the street. . . . With federal grants about to expire, however, those 300 positions may be cut."

Sacramento's tax increase measure is a likely precursor of what will happen in Los Angeles in three years when the newly announced grant balance hits zero.

In fact, it's likely that Angelenos will face a police-related tax increase proposal next year, in part because of the grant.

L.A. Police Chief Bernard Parks is already pushing for a $600-plus-million property tax backed bond for next April's city ballot to build and improve police facilities. Adding hundreds of new officers will only increase the demand for new facilities.

It is understandable that Mayor Richard Riordan, Parks and other officials want to grab the federal money. They argue that most citizens want the police force enlarged and the new officers can be added over time so that the budget can accommodate them.

Los Angeles residents and officials must understand, however, that making the easy decision to accept the money today will lead to hard decisions tomorrow. This scenario, as well as Sacramento's situation, begs the question: Why is the federal government doling out money to fund local police needs, anyway?

Old style federalism meant that the federal government would tend to national needs, while state and local governments address local concerns. Of course, that horse left the barn long ago when Congress and the executive branch figured out that spreading federal funds around like manna from Washington could help at reelection time. That's using our own money to buy our votes.

If Washington has enough money to make grants for local purposes, then it has too much money. Now would be a good time to rethink the federal compact and take a step back toward old style federalism.

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