Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa proposed Wednesday steadily raising residential trash fees to what by 2009 would amount to a 155% increase over the $11 customers now pay each month.
The mayor would devote all of the resulting revenue to hiring 1,053 more police officers by 2010 -- a bold goal that Villaraigosa said was critical to keeping a lid on the city's crime rate and attracting more tourists and businesses to Los Angeles.
In a lengthy interview, with popular Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton at his side, Villaraigosa made his case for hiking a fee that the city has heavily subsidized; residents currently pay one of the lowest rates in Los Angeles County. Monthly residential rates for homeowners would go from $11 now to $18 starting with the new fiscal year in July, then to $22 the next year, $26 the next and finally to $28.
Those living in apartment buildings with four or fewer units currently pay a $7.27 monthly fee and would face an increase similar to homeowners', although the mayor's office did not supply the exact numbers.
The mayor acknowledged that getting the increase approved by the City Council -- and accepted by residents -- is likely to be a battle that would require him to trade on not only his but Bratton's political capital. Recent declines in the city's crime rate have been widely attributed to various Bratton initiatives.
The timing, however, may be right for Villaraigosa. Free garbage pickup was preserved in Los Angeles for decades because it was largely a city of homeowners who had political clout and ties to City Hall. These days, almost 60% of residents are apartment-dwellers living in denser areas where crime tends to be higher. And renters in buildings with more than four units would be spared the higher fees.
Even if the city gets more money to hire police officers, finding enough men and women who want to join the force poses a different challenge.
In fiscal year 2004-05, the city had 5,545 people apply to become officers, but only 381 of those actually made it. This year, the city set aside enough money to hire 720 officers, but expects to find only 607.
The city has graduated a full Police Academy class only once in the last nine years, and that was in 1997. The starting annual salary for officers in Los Angeles is about $51,000, and Villaraigosa and Bratton conceded that they would probably have to institute hiring bonuses or increase pay to make the job more attractive.
The mayor and the police chief also said that while declines in crime have come with the LAPD's current force of 9,314 officers -- far fewer than those employed by departments in New York and Chicago -- more officers would be needed in Los Angeles for that trend to continue.
"The city has gotten more than its fair share out of this Police Department," Bratton said. "But this is a growing city. We can't expect the police force to literally stay at this size."
Bratton ticked off a list of places where he wants to station more officers -- Hollywood, downtown's skid row, South Los Angeles and in the San Fernando Valley, where Bratton said crime is increasing. He also said that even though the council has agreed to pay for 70 more anti-terrorism officers, it is an issue that "isn't going away" and would probably require more resources in years ahead.
The fee increase can be looked at through another prism: It finally would give Bratton the kind of force increase he has been asking for almost since he was hired in October 2002.
Villaraigosa -- who must plug a $270 million-plus shortfall by the time he presents his first city budget a week from today -- said that the garbage fee hike is part of a new fiscal discipline he plans to introduce in City Hall. He talked of denying employees big raises, reining in workers' compensation costs, better controlling spending within city agencies and converting more city cars to fuel-saving hybrids.
To help close the budget gap, he said, "We've been able to identify $40 million in efficiencies and we're not going to stop there."
Shortly after taking office, Villaraigosa said he was "surprised" to learn that the city had about a $295-million structural deficit -- the difference between the cost of ongoing programs and the revenue the city receives.
Asked why he was surprised, given that he had served on the City Council during two budget seasons, Villaraigosa said: "I didn't understand the level of the deficit; I wasn't the mayor."
Although he did not campaign as a fiscal conservative when elected last year, "I've become much more conscious about the need to be," Villaraigosa said. "It's the way Bill Clinton was, it's the way Tom Bradley was, and [if] that means standing down the unions in the city, I'm prepared to do that. And moving out managers who can't understand that we have to get control of these finances ... I'm ready to do that."
Villaraigosa said his willingness to support a trash fee increase is reflective of his new job and that it was easier to vote for spending money when he was a state legislator.
"When you're the person in charge, you kind of look at this stuff a little differently," the mayor said.