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Budget Panel Says No to Police

Council members defy Hahn, Bratton, saying they can't OK funds to hire more officers yet.

May 15, 2003|Jessica Garrison and Matea Gold | Times Staff Writers

The Los Angeles City Council's budget committee defied the mayor and the police chief Wednesday, voting to delay expanding the Police Department and other new spending proposed for next year on the grounds that it would jeopardize the city's fiscal health.

In turn, Police Chief William J. Bratton invoked the specter of Osama bin Laden and warned the committee that its plan would hamper his department's ability to prevent terrorism and reduce crime.

On a 4-1 vote, the Budget and Finance Committee recommended postponing for six months the expenditure of $69 million for additional police officers, road paving and other items favored by Mayor James K. Hahn. The committee left in place most of his proposed fee increases, including higher residential garbage pickup fees, projected to raise about $30 million a year.

The idea is that delay would allow officials to better judge Los Angeles' fiscal health later. At that point, they could determine whether the city could afford the projects. Among the items to be put on hold would be the expansion of the LAPD by 320 officers and the repaving of 84 miles of streets.

"We cannot give the [police] department carte blanche to keep hiring beyond the means that we have," said City Council President Alex Padilla -- normally a Hahn ally -- who broke with the mayor to push for the revised spending plan. He is not on the budget committee, but he made a special presentation Wednesday in favor of the proposal.

"I know far too well what it is like to live in an unsafe neighborhood," Padilla said, referring to a childhood in which gang members and drug dealers plagued his Pacoima neighborhood. "But the current financial situation simply mandates that we wait on large expenditures."

The plan, which will be forwarded to the full council Friday, was greeted with indignation and frustration by the mayor's office and Bratton.

Putting police hiring on hold, Bratton told the committee, would be the equivalent of "placing a telephone call to Osama [bin Laden] and saying, 'Osama, hold off for nine months till we get our act together here.' "

"I'm incredulous, quite frankly," the chief added.

Delaying the expansion of the Police Department "would significantly eviscerate the progress that has been made" and would threaten his goals of stemming crime, complying with a federal consent decree and preventing terrorism, Bratton said. It also could take the wind out of recruitment efforts, he said.

Tough Choice

Many on the council said that curtailing public safety is the last thing they want to do, but that they thought they had no choice but to hold back on committing money at the level Hahn wants. In the last several weeks, council members have expressed increasing alarm about projections that Los Angeles may face a $280-million shortfall by June 2004.

Councilman Jack Weiss, who has been among the critics, said Wednesday that the mayor's office has tried to "create a false debate in this city."

"Every single person on this council supports expanding the Police Department," he said.

Questions from council members about the projected shortfalls have inspired a political battle between the City Council and Hahn, who has argued that the dismal budget forecasts are based on assumptions that could change in the next year.

On Tuesday, Padilla warned that the city would have to delay hiring the 320 police officers Hahn wants to avoid financial problems down the road. The mayor then released a letter to Padilla accusing him of undermining efforts to make Los Angeles safer.

Padilla shot back Wednesday that suggestions that he was not in favor of public safety were "scurrilous, false and misleading."

"I for one cannot stand by and let our city to be led into a Sacramento-type situation," Padilla told the committee.

After a short discussion, the panel approved a plan recommended by the city's chief legislative analyst to delay all the new expenditures the mayor has proposed, including a top-to-bottom reorganization of the Police Department and the hiring of 30 firefighters.

More than 30 miles of sidewalk repairs would be put off, as well as an expansion of the city's 311 information line. According to the report, the plan would save Los Angeles $51 million in 2004-05.

The committee also backed a proposal by Weiss that expresses support for the additional police hires and the reorganization of the LAPD, but that would require the mayor's office to demonstrate financial stability before the money could be spent.

Councilwoman Janice Hahn, the mayor's sister, cast the lone dissenting vote on the committee, saying the city should find a way to finance an expansion of the Police Department, possibly through an additional increase in the trash fee.

"I think people in the city of Los Angeles are expecting us to hire more police officers," she said. "Everything I'm trying to do is not going to matter if it's not safe."

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