Los Angeles is facing a potential fiscal emergency, the mayor and the City Council often say, whether talking about hiring more cops or finding ways to avoid cutting park staffing or library hours.
But one item that local lawmakers likely won't discuss publicly is now official: The city's 18 elected officials are slated to receive pay raises of 4.16%, retroactive to July 1.
And the City Council -- whose members are already the highest paid municipal lawmakers in the nation, with a salary higher than that of most members of Congress -- didn't have to vote on the raises, thanks to an automatic pay mechanism voters agreed to more than a decade ago.
This year's raise is the fourth significant pay hike for city elected officials in 2 1/2 years, totaling at least $35,000 for each officeholder. The latest boost brings the salaries of council members to $178,789, the city controller to $196,667, the city attorney to $214,546 and the mayor to $232,425. By comparison, the New York City Council voted itself a raise last year that upped salaries from $90,000 to $112,500.
In response to an inquiry from The Times on Wednesday, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa quickly promised to turn down his pay hike.
"With the city of Los Angeles facing a tough budget year, I do not believe now is the time for me to accept an automatic and retroactive pay raise. Being mayor of Los Angeles is reward enough, and I'm committed to working 24/7 to protect essential services."
In 1990, voters approved a sweeping reform package that created the Ethics Commission and tied the salaries of the city's elected officials to those of Superior Court judges. The judges' raises are based on the average of pay hikes granted to state employees.
The change relieved council members, who made roughly $60,000 a year at the time, of the politically sticky duty of deciding their own raises.
The council is in recess this week for some members to attend the National League of Cities convention in New Orleans. Reaction was mixed among those who returned phone calls.
Councilwoman Wendy Greuel said she would reject the raise, while colleagues Jan Perry and Tom LaBonge indicated they would accept it, and Dennis Zine said he'd give his to charity.
Councilman Jack Weiss, Villaraigosa's staunchest City Hall ally, said through a spokeswoman that he would take it, because "it's the law." More than an hour later, after the mayor said he would turn down the raise, the spokeswoman called back to say that Weiss wanted to consult with the mayor before deciding whether to accept it.
City Controller Laura Chick said it may be time to revisit how politicians' salaries are calculated.
"The bottom line for me is what is the rationale, and how can we justify that 18 employees of the city get paid based on a budget that is not the city budget," Chick said.
The raise surely would not play well in the neighborhoods, said Ken Draper, editor of the online CityWatch, which advocates for more community empowerment. "I would like to see it tied to the performance of the council -- promises made, promises kept," Draper said. "This is what creates apathy."
The city is asking voters in February to reaffirm the city's right to collect a telephone users tax that is threatened by three lawsuits and amounts to about $270 million in annual revenues. In order to get the measure on the ballot as quickly as possible, the mayor and council last month declared that it was necessary because the city faced a potential fiscal crisis.
"Honestly, the appearance isn't the greatest," said Councilman Ed Reyes. "But the truth is that some of us have four kids, and the pressure is on when you have one in junior college and one graduating from high school."
Reyes said that about five years ago he turned down a raise to make a point about his staff not getting one -- which they later did. "My wife found out," he said. "And it was hard to explain why I did that."