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Picking up the LAPD

April 13, 2006

'THIS IS NEW TO ME," Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said Wednesday, referring to the city budget, and he almost got that right. He was on the City Council for two years before being elected mayor, so it's a little hard to accept his shock at suddenly realizing, after taking the oath last July, that the budget has been put together with string and library paste.

Still, a little disingenuousness is excusable in the service of a worthwhile cause, and the mayor's attempt to address Los Angeles' recurring annual deficit -- $271 million this year -- is certainly worthwhile. Villaraigosa will release his first budget next week, and to judge from the details released so far, he has a newfound respect for fiscal conservatism.

On Wednesday he described his plan to raise trash fees to finance the expansion of the Los Angeles Police Department. It makes sense for the rest of the city's residents to stop subsidizing trash collection for homeowners, and it's about time Los Angeles found a way to pay for expanding the police department to a more rational number of officers. So increasing homeowner trash fees from $11 a month now to $18 next year, up to $28 in 2010, and using the money to hire 1,000 new officers, is brilliant. Right?

Maybe. Villaraigosa knows enough not to steamroll homeowners with a major new user fee without at the same time making some serious commitments to streamlining City Hall operations and finding cost savings elsewhere in the budget. He appears as confident as every other first-year mayor that there are savings just waiting to be plucked from city operations; $40 million in his first budget alone.

But homeowners need some assurance that the new fees really will go to the LAPD and not be diverted into a new program or some budgetary black hole. When Villaraigosa was on the City Council last year and had a chance to complain about the structural deficit, he instead helped block the last mayor's cost-cutting efforts to merge several departments. And his vote helped deny voters the chance to weigh in on a sales tax proposal that would have been restricted to hiring officers and other public safety uses.

Now, the mayor says he sees things differently than he did as a councilman, and he's asking us to trust him. And to trust him again when he promises that there's no way he would ever allow the general fund money freed up by the new trash fees to be used for anything other than growing the LAPD.

It's tempting to say no. But it is a fact that virtually free home trash collection is an unjustifiable luxury. It is also a fact that Villaraigosa is putting considerable political capital on the line. And it is a fact that one L.A. mayor after another has tried schemes both reasonable and bizarre to reach the holy grail of 10,000 LAPD officers, only to have the phantom of a full-sized force evaporate in their hands. Now a fully grown LAPD, necessary even in this era of falling crime, hovers once more within reach.

There's plenty of cause for skepticism -- but plenty of cause, too, for cautious optimism.

Raise the fees, hire the cops. And hold the mayor's feet to the fire.

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