In a decisive victory that reflects Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's strong political influence at City Hall, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously approved his plan Tuesday to hike garbage rates and help fund a major expansion of the Police Department.
The vote means that the trash bills of most L.A. residents will more than double in the next four years. Yet the City Council approved the increase without debate -- in what observers see as a ringing endorsement of the mayor's agenda.
"It's huge. Everyone wants to ride his coattail," said Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles. "The council is not stupid. They are giving him the real benefit of the doubt here."
With the council's approval of the fee hike, Villaraigosa has achieved what his predecessor, James K. Hahn, had long promised but could not deliver: a significant budget increase for the LAPD to hire more officers. The hike, and the police buildup it is intended to support, were the centerpieces of Villaraigosa's $6.7-billion budget, the first he has submitted since being elected mayor last year.
By charging increasing amounts for trash collection over the next four years, the city has freed up millions of dollars that Villaraigosa plans to use to bring the LAPD force up to about 10,200 officers by 2010. Police Chief William J. Bratton has argued since taking the job in 2002 that Los Angeles is under-policed compared to other large cities, and repeatedly has asked for money to expand the force.
At present, the LAPD has 9,314 officers. The mayor's office believes that about 3,000 officers will have to be hired over the next four years to overcome attrition and reach its hiring goal.
As Villaraigosa admits, however, money alone will not solve the LAPD's problems. The department has struggled at times to fill its academy classes over the last year, causing some to wonder whether the money that Villaraigosa is prepared to spend will result in the full expansion.
The last big effort to increase the LAPD's ranks occurred under Mayor Richard Riordan, who took office after the 1992 riots. By 1998, the LAPD had hit a record 9,852 officers. But since then, the department has battled high rates of attrition and the advances of other police agencies that offer officers competitive pay, often in less dangerous cities.
Although the police buildup was widely supported in the City Council, the trash fee hike to pay for it was far less popular. Under that plank of Villaraigosa's budget, monthly residential rates for homeowners would go from $11 now to $18 later this year, then to $22 the next fiscal year, $26 the next and finally to $28.
The city has for decades subsidized most of the cost of picking up trash at residents' homes. Charging residents more was seen as politically off-limits. The new structure will mean that L.A.'s garbage hauling fees will go from being among the lowest in Los Angeles County to being among the highest by 2010.
In the days leading up to the vote, some at City Hall had predicted that as many as three or four council members might vote against the trash plan. Councilman Greig Smith had voted against it in the council's Budget Committee, but reversed course Tuesday, saying, "there was no point in calling a debate. I voiced my objections in committee."
Recognizing the potential for a divisive debate, Villaraigosa and the council leadership pushed for a unanimous vote that allowed the city's elected leadership to share credit for the budget.
Councilwoman Janice Hahn, one of those whose support was in doubt, said she even received a call from the mayor while the council was meeting Tuesday morning.
In the end, the lobbying by Villaraigosa and his allies won out, and critics folded rather than be seen as voting against public safety or taking on a popular mayor who was presenting his first budget for approval.
"I would have expected it to be more contentious -- it's probably something whose time has come," said Raphael Sonenshein, a political science professor at Cal State Fullerton. "It has to be encouraging for the mayor because it seems like this should have been a hard vote."
Villaraigosa was in Washington on Tuesday to lobby for federal funds. In a statement, he said: "Today the City Council made history. The vote may have been unanimous, but that doesn't mean it was easy.... In the past, the city has relied on short-term fixes and one-time solutions."
Although it was a big win for Villaraigosa, uphill battles remain for other parts of his agenda. Through the art of repetition, Villaraigosa has laid out an ambitious platform that includes expanding the LAPD, building a subway to the sea and taking over the schools.
But the subway would require massive infusions of state and federal money and the schools plan would need the state Legislature's approval. That left the police expansion as the one plank of Villaraigosa's platform over which he had direct control.