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L.A. Lags Behind Largest U.S. Cities in Basic Services

Poor rankings give Valley, Hollywood secession supporters more ammunition.

October 13, 2002|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

About This Series

Today, The Times begins a series on Los Angeles city services. Today's story compares Los Angeles with other major American cities. Stories later this week will look at the city's record with respect to potholes, planning, street signs and fire and police services.


Los Angeles trails the other four largest U.S. cities in key measurements of many municipal services, including police and fire protection, a record that secessionists say boosts their cause as residents prepare to vote on the breakaway measures for the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood.

In their campaign to defeat secession on the Nov. 5 ballot, Mayor James K. Hahn and other city officials have warned that a municipal breakup would lead to financial problems and possible cuts in services for the Valley and Hollywood, as well as the remainder of Los Angeles.

They say Los Angeles, as a large city taking advantage of the "economies of scale," can deliver services at a higher quality and lower cost than three smaller cities could.

But in rankings of the five biggest cities, Los Angeles is less efficient at delivering certain basic services in categories such as emergency response times for police officers and spending per capita on library materials, a Times review has found.

The comparisons are not exact, because the unique characteristics of each city -- from its physical size to the age of its infrastructure to the local weather -- can affect the cost and quality of services.

Taxes also vary among the cities.

In Los Angeles, Proposition 13 severely limits increases in property taxes, a prime source of revenue. Other taxes are so variable -- within Los Angeles, residents in different areas pay different taxes, depending on special assessment districts and other factors -- that it is impossible to meaningfully compare tax burdens among residents here with those of other big cities.

Those factors aside, in many areas Los Angeles ranks at or near the bottom in matchups with New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Houston. For this survey, The Times analyzed police, fire, library, street resurfacing and parks -- five services provided by each of the big cities and studied by academics and others.


* Los Angeles has fewer police officers per capita than the other four cities. It also has the slowest response time among those police departments.

* Los Angeles has the smallest number of firefighters per capita. Its response time for fires is worse than New York's but better than Houston's. Chicago does not track response times and Philadelphia's record is better than L.A.'s by one standard and worse by another.

* Los Angeles has the smallest number of branch libraries per capita and spends less on library services and materials per capita than do the other cities.

* Los Angeles resurfaces a smaller percentage of its streets each year than do New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. Houston is last in this category.

Secessionists blame L.A.'s poor showing in part on a weighted-down bureaucracy and a remote City Council, whose 15 members represent about 240,000 people each, by far the largest number for any city council in the nation. It also galls breakup advocates that L.A. council members are the best paid in America, with an annual salary of $136,000.

"This is part and parcel of money going to a bloated bureaucratic structure rather than being spent on direct services to the public," said state Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Northridge), a candidate for mayor of the proposed Valley city.

Richman and other secessionists say splitting Los Angeles into three cities will eliminate most inefficiencies, and allow the Valley, Hollywood and the remainder of Los Angeles to increase services.

"You cut out the fat right off the top and that money could go to public safety," said Carlos Ferreyra, co-chair of the Valley Independence Committee.

Hahn acknowledged that Los Angeles lags behind other major cities in some categories but said secession would only deepen the problem by spreading money and employees even thinner.

The mayor said he has taken steps to turn things around, most notably by hiring former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton as police chief and setting aside money to expand the police force, Fire Department and street resurfacing program.

"I know we need to have more, but to divide us, that's going to hurt everybody on both sides of the line," Hahn said.

Los Angeles already is doing some things better than other big cities, according to a 2001 study by the Reason Foundation, a conservative think tank. The foundation was critical of Los Angeles overall but praised the municipal parks system and the city's performance in building maintenance.

The city has 4.2 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents, more than Chicago and New York, but less than Philadelphia and Houston, which has 10 acres per 1,000 people, according to the nonprofit Trust for Public Land.

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