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Life in California Is Turning Anemic as Governmental Services Bleed

Sacramento's fiscal woes damage quality of life and public optimism.

May 12, 2003|D.J. Waldie

Like a bulldozed hillside above Los Angeles waiting for more tract houses, optimism in California is starting to erode. We don't know exactly what's happening, only that we're finally at the end of a year of public dissimulation about the readiness of the state's $35-billion budget shortfall to consume large parts of the way of life that we've wished into existence since 1945. Our California -- imperfect, heedless and lovely -- is our home, and it's beginning to feel awfully neglected.

Libraries in Long Beach, Santa Monica and San Diego and in the Los Angeles County system are targeted for closure or fewer days of operation and shorter hours. Oakland is considering a once-a-month "no city services" day, when only essential public safety functions would be staffed. In San Jose, voters taxed themselves to build more parks, fire stations and police facilities, and now the city can't afford to staff them.

Other cities are unlikely to begin any building because they expect the state to siphon away as much as $750 million more in revenue earmarked for economic development projects and affordable housing, on top of the $175 million the state intends to take this year. Most cities are scaling back even routine maintenance, leaving street trees unkempt, litter in unswept gutters and graffiti on neighborhood walls. In those senior centers and city playgrounds that are still maintained, some employees who supervise activities will be getting layoff notices.

The lifeguards at Los Angeles County beaches expect to be spread more thinly. In Long Beach, a city employee cleans a 24,000-square-foot building alone, struggling to do a job that once rated two maintenance positions, a pattern being repeated across the state.

The community colleges -- the first step up for the working poor and their sons and daughters -- may have to double tuition costs in the fall. A full load of classes for less than $300 seems like a bargain, unless all you have is $150.

Neighborhood security is showing gaps too. The L.A. County district attorney's office expects cuts in units that handle crimes against the elderly, domestic violence and environmental abuse. The Sheriff's Department, which provides law enforcement for more than half of the county's cities, expects to shut down specialized anti-crime details, cut anti-gang park patrols and end the popular community-oriented policing program that builds trust between residents and deputies. In the meantime, serious crime is up again, particularly gang crime; homicides have increased 15% countywide and 11% in the city of Los Angeles.

California was always about what you optimistically intended to be, even if you lived paycheck to paycheck; now, it's about what you fear to lose. Libraries, parks, community facilities and the modest public amenities that cities deliver -- the ordinariness of neighborhoods -- are all that some of us have to take the harshness out of living in so much anxiety.

"Deficit" is a word that shuttles these days between the sickroom and the statehouse. It's a word attached to dwindling abilities, a word for measuring the loss of hope.

Not all at once, and still in ways that well-off Californians can afford to ignore, the local institutions and public services that define a neighborhood's quality of life are being hollowed out.

California is about to become much less a place of sunny optimism.

D. J. Waldie is a city official in Lakewood, where he lives. He is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" (W.W. Norton, 1996).

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