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Council Weighs Tax for Police

Lawmakers, hoping to generate revenue to hire more officers, may study putting a proposal on the March or November 2004 ballot.

October 16, 2003|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

Desperate for more police officers but wary of cutting other city services to pay for them, Los Angeles City Council members took initial steps Wednesday toward asking voters to approve a new tax to pay police salaries.

"If we're truly committed to making Los Angeles the safest big city, we have to be willing to consider all our options," said council President Alex Padilla, who called for a study of the feasibility of putting a tax -- probably a real estate parcel tax -- on the March or November 2004 ballot.

Five of Padilla's colleagues signed the motion, which was co-sponsored by Councilman Eric Garcetti. The full council will vote on whether to proceed with the study next week, and the council has until Nov. 12 to decide whether to put a tax proposal on the March ballot.

Mayor James K. Hahn said he did not object to the study. But he expressed concern that "it's sending the wrong message to Sacramento that they can take money away from local government and then we're saying, 'Don't worry about it because we'll make it up by taxing our own citizens.' "

The city has tried twice before, in 1992 and 1993, to persuade voters to tax themselves to pay for more officers. Both attempts failed to get the necessary two-thirds favorable vote.

But some Los Angeles officials said they think the time is right to ask voters to pay for more police, despite the sluggish economy and a recall of Gov. Gray Davis that was driven in part by anger over a tripling of the car tax. The LAPD now has about 9,250 officers, or about one officer per 404 residents -- far fewer police per capita than other large U.S. cities. New York City has about 36,000 officers, or about one per 220 residents.

"The public has said loud and clear: We want public safety," Garcetti said.

Plans for how such a tax would work are vague. Officials said the most likely option is a property tax, although a utility tax is possible. Officials said they probably would seek funds to increase the force to at least 10,000 officers, at a price tag of about $80 million a year. Council members said they would also like to be able to pay for more anti-gang efforts and improve school safety.

Other council members said they support the study, but are not convinced that hitting residents with another tax is a good idea.

"You can tax people to death," said Councilman Dennis Zine, who added that Los Angeles school officials are planning to put a bond on the ballot. "At what point do you say enough is enough?"

Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., called the proposal "a horrible idea" and said city officials need to "reprioritize their spending."

"This city has never shown a proclivity to become more efficient," he said.

But another traditional opponent of tax increases, Richard Close of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn., expressed cautious support.

"I'm seriously considering supporting the measure," he said. "Everyone acknowledges that the city is seriously under-policed, and something has to be done."

City officials have been trying to fund more officers for months. Hahn had tried to set aside $30 million to hire 320 officers this year, but the City Council blocked that plan for fear that the city could not afford it.

Officials also applied for and got a $20-million federal grant to pay part of the cost of hiring 278 police officers over three years, on condition that the city provide the rest of the money.

But last week some officials said the city might not be able to afford the $41 million in matching funds. Los Angeles is bracing for a $47-million reduction in state revenue.

Although the mayor said he still believed that the city could scrape together the matching funds necessary for the federal grant, others are worried that Los Angeles has few options left for hiring more officers.

Padilla said that the city will continue to press state and federal officials for more money but that the prospects are dim. Officials can slash other departments, he said, but "there is no fat left to cut. Any further cuts will impact vital city services and programs for Los Angeles residents."

"Ultimately, it's going to be for the voters to decide," he said.

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