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Report Confirms Secession Is Viable

Breakup: A county panel says the Valley could support itself, using L.A. services. But the harbor area would face a bigger challenge.

January 10, 2002|MICHAEL FINNEGAN and PATRICK McGREEVY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The commission reviewing plans to split Los Angeles apart released a final study Wednesday confirming the viability of San Fernando Valley secession--a key step toward a citywide vote on the proposed breakup.

In a separate report, the commission concluded that it might also be feasible for the harbor area to secede from Los Angeles despite uncertainty over whether it could support itself as an independent city.

The studies--along with another to be released in March on Hollywood secession--could lead to a November referendum on whether to carve Los Angeles into two, three or four smaller cities.

"It's no longer a matter of if this can be done; it's how it can be done," Valley secessionist Jeff Brain said.

The Local Agency Formation Commission for Los Angeles County has been struggling for two years to devise a concrete plan.

For the Valley, the final report by LAFCO's consulting firm, Public Financial Management, offers a road map. It's largely the same plan proposed in a draft report in October.

The proposed Valley city, as yet unnamed, would remain tightly entwined with Los Angeles for years.

Los Angeles would provide water, power, police and fire protection, road repairs, trash collection and every other basic service under contract. A Valley city would pay Los Angeles nearly $1 billion a year--just short of its entire budget. A new city would employ no more than 36 people. It would take more than 8,000 Los Angeles employees to provide services to the Valley.

After a transition of up to three years, the Valley's mayor and city council could opt to hire private vendors to replace Los Angeles. It could also build up its own work force, perhaps shifting some Los Angeles employees to its payroll. But how any of that might occur would be unknown when secession went before voters, according to the report.

Valley secessionists greeted the plan for a contract city with scorn in October, but Wednesday they portrayed it as a step toward independence.

"We'll wean ourselves off city of L.A. services," said Charles Brink, a leader of the Valley VOTE secession group.

The proposed Valley city would start off owning nothing but its streets. It could acquire parks, libraries and other property from Los Angeles only with the consent of the Los Angeles mayor and City Council. Secession leaders said they would continue urging LAFCO to require an asset split as part of the final ballot measure.

The study also found that the Valley city would need to pay Los Angeles $66 million a year as compensation for lost tax revenue.

The study, conducted in response to a petition by more than 200,000 Valley voters, could be audited soon by state Controller Kathleen Connell. The Service Employees International Union will request an audit, said Julie Butcher, general manager of a local that represents 8,500 city employees.

"There really needs to be someone else looking at this stuff," she said. "This is too big of a deal to take lightly."

By law, the controller would have 45 days to issue a report. LAFCO Executive Officer Larry J. Calemine would have to include the audit in his report to the commission, with recommendations on whether the issue should be put to a popular vote. In late spring, the LAFCO board plans to take a final vote on whether to put secession on the ballot.

In the meantime, Valley VOTE and city officials will continue negotiating terms of the measure. On Wednesday, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, the LAFCO commissioner overseeing preparation of the measure, accused city officials of trying to "torpedo" the referendum.

He cited the city's threat to charge higher utility rates in areas that secede--and a city report finding that Valley secession would cost Los Angeles $284 million more than estimated by LAFCO.

Yaroslavsky stopped just short of threatening to delay the referendum until 2004, when it could damage the reelection campaign of Mayor James K. Hahn, a fellow Democrat.

"We can have this debate in November 2004, just four months before the next mayor's election, if that's what everybody wants," Yaroslavsky said.

Deputy Mayor Mayor Matt Middlebrook called Yaroslavsky's remarks "absurd," saying the city has "gone above and beyond anything that's been asked of it."

"I hope they are not using the city of L.A. as an excuse not to do the work necessary to get this on the ballot in November, because it would be a disservice to everybody," he said.

As for the harbor area, the final report found that it would generate enough tax revenue to be viable if it could cut the cost of services provided now by Los Angeles. But it's uncertain whether a new harbor city could make the cuts needed, the study said.

It found that San Pedro and Wilmington generate $123.8 million in annual revenue, which is $34 million less than it costs Los Angeles to provide services to the area.

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