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Council Cuts $47 Million From City Budget

October 23, 2003|Jessica Garrison and Patrick Mcgreevy | Times Staff Writers

Confronted by a rising tide of red ink, Los Angeles City Council members cut $47 million from the city's budget Wednesday, in part by canceling 84 miles of street paving, scuttling refurbishment of playgrounds and putting off the purchase of about 50 police cars.

Even as they made those reductions, officials warned that bigger problems loomed: Los Angeles faces a projected shortfall of at least $180 million in the next fiscal year, but that figure could climb if the economy worsens or if Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger reduces the car tax without replacing it with another source of money for cities.

With that in mind, council members voted to try to renegotiate contracts with unions representing city employees. They also voted to seek ways to streamline all departments and study whether to ask voters to approve a tax next spring to pay for hiring more officers.

"It's really, really difficult times," said Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, adding that if Sacramento makes any more cuts to cities, Los Angeles could face "free fall."

The budget problem has many causes, some new and others the city has been grappling with for months. An ongoing issue is the spiraling cost of pension funds and workers' compensation.

New troubles are the $47 million in funding cuts that the state made during the summer, along with the fact that, nearly four months into this fiscal year, city departments are already $50 million over budget.

Wednesday's cuts, which must be approved by Mayor James K. Hahn, include $11 million from street repaving, $1 million from the Parks and Recreation Department and $500,000 in postage.

They must be carved out of the $5-billion budget that city officials approved in May. At that time, council members rejected the mayor's plan to expand the Los Angeles Police Department, arguing that the city needed to be prudent because of an uncertain economic situation.

Since then, Gov. Gray Davis has been recalled. In addition, Schwarzenegger pledged during his campaign to reduce the vehicle license fee, whose revenue goes directly to cities. If the tax is reduced and the state does not replace the money, Los Angeles stands to lose up to $105 million this year and $232 million next year.

Schwarzenegger said in Sacramento on Wednesday that he would protect cities if he succeeded in repealing the car tax.

But officials are still worried.

Bill Fujioka, the city's chief administrative officer, told officials that $232 million would be equivalent to eliminating the city's Cultural Affairs, Animal Services and Planning departments and the zoo, stopping all funding to the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment and the library, laying off 110 police officers and 110 firefighters, and letting potholes accumulate and tree branches grow unchecked.

Council President Alex Padilla said the city is facing a difficult time that requires "tough decisions," such as trying to reopen contracts with the city.

That idea was troubling to union leaders, which would have to agree to reopen contracts and accept concessions.

"I have a lot of concern," said Bob Baker, president of the Police Protective League, which finalized a three-year contract in July that provided a 9% raise.

"They tried to reopen once before eight or 10 years ago, and none of the unions agreed to do it," said Stephen Hutchinson of the Engineers and Architects Assn. "If they want to reopen, they have to have a good reason and they have to give us something in return."

Councilman Bernard Parks, who chairs the council's budget committee, said he supports a reopening of contracts.

"You can't ignore personnel costs," Parks said.

Despite the grim budget picture, council members stressed that they remain committed to improving public safety in Los Angeles.

Council members voted unanimously Wednesday to go forward with a study on whether to ask voters to approve a new police tax. The council has until Nov. 12 to decide whether to put a tax on the March ballot. Council members have said they would like to see the LAPD, which currently has about 9,200 officers, field a force of at least 10,000.

Councilwoman Janice Hahn said council members also need to think about making tough choices in the budget to fund more police officers. If streets aren't safe, she said, "I don't know what other program in this city means anything."

Council members issued pleas and some light-hearted threats to the governor-elect.

"Eighty-four miles of unpaved Los Angeles streets, that will ruin the axle on a Hummer," joked Councilman Jack Weiss, referring to Schwarzenegger's vehicle.

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