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No sympathy, mayor

Angelenos get angry when reality fails to match Villaraigosa's rosy tax and fee promises.

August 04, 2008

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has taken a lot of hits lately for rapidly increasing trash collection fees, especially after City Controller Laura Chick found that much of the money was going for police equipment, recruitment and raises rather than solely to pay the salaries of new hires. His critics should know better. Discussions in the City Council, around town and in these pages made it abundantly clear that although the purpose of the increases was to expand the Los Angeles Police Department, the money could not be earmarked and the costs of expansion would not be limited to new salaries.

But the mayor deserves no sympathy, and he gets none from us. The anger and sense of betrayal are his own fault. It was he, and no one else, who asserted publicly that "every dollar residents pay for trash pickup will be used to put more officers on the streets."

Far from being just an exuberant blurt on the spur of the moment, the promise falls into a pattern of mayoral statements that appear calculated to win support while leaving enough wiggle room so that Villaraigosa can later deny ever having fibbed. Did every dollar get used to put more officers on the streets? Well, technically, yes, because the city must show would-be recruits that officers get steady raises. And yes, a larger department requires a larger fleet of patrol cars, more money for fuel, and on and on.

The policy goal was, and is, spot-on. A larger LAPD benefits every neighborhood. Paying for it largely with homeowner trash fees set at a rate that covers the costs of collection, instead of subsidizing the service with taxes paid by everyone, is sound.

But it's also painful, especially in this time of economic downturn, and residents conditioned to expect verbal gymnastics from the mayor have little reason to be happy. Unlike (also rising) water and power rates, trash fees are not elastic -- residents short of cash in any given month can't simply throw out less garbage and be rewarded with a lower fee. Meanwhile, the same Angelenos are paying new taxes on some communications devices -- another sound policy, this time adopted by voters, but tainted by the mayor-led Proposition S campaign's assertion that the "phone tax" was a decrease that nevertheless pays for public safety.

Now the mayor is demanding that voters pay for his campaign promises to build the "subway to the sea" (with a sales tax increase) and improve schools (with a massive bond). These, too, could be sound policy moves, but the wisdom of adopting them begins to take a back seat to the mayor's self-interested or overreaching rhetoric about them. That makes each new program he offers harder and harder to defend.

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