So you think you can do a better job than the mayor or the City Council in solving Los Angeles' budget crisis? With revenue declining and the city facing a $433-million gap next year, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and city officials are giving you a chance to do just that.
In a short survey posted on the city's home page, you can choose which programs should be cut in each department. And you can rank your top priorities, as if you were guiding the city's cuts: Is it more important, for example, to spend money on street maintenance, dirt alley paving, streetlight repair or construction of new libraries? With 5,796 home foreclosures in Los Angeles in the first six months of this year, should the city be spending money to help people facing financial trouble or helping neighborhoods deal with related blight?
The questions present what some respondents may find to be maddening choices in dark economic times. Among them: Would you rather the city cut sewage treatment, trash collection, planning, housing or street cleaning services?
There's also a chance to offer your views on whether it's fair that 42 cents of the city's budget dollar is currently spent on police and fire, while 12 cents is spent on traffic and street services, and 6 cents on libraries, arts and parks.
Other queries ask residents to decide whether the city should provide more or less money to remove graffiti, replace aging swimming pools or fund one of the mayor's favorite projects: Summer Night Lights, a program that targets gang crime by keeping certain parks open late and offering additional athletic and arts activities.
Tucked deep in the survey is some sad trivia about the state of the city: Half of Los Angeles' 10,750 miles of sidewalk are in disrepair, for example, but the city has budgeted enough money to fix just 52 miles a year. At that rate, it could be 83 years before you can avoid tripping over that crack in the sidewalk outside your house -- and city officials are looking for suggestions on what to do about that.
There's also a chance to complain, in a section that allows residents to rate how the city is doing in various areas. However, the scale -- from excellent to poor -- might not capture most residents' level of frustration with problems such as traffic congestion.
The mayor promises to use the survey results as he develops his next budget, which will be presented to the council in April.
Wondering whether anyone in the city actually pays attention to these sorts of Internet surveys, which can be highly unreliable? Apparently, they do.
The mayor's spokesman, Matt Szabo, said the city processed 2,556 such surveys last year, with a quarter collected from neighborhood councils (whose members can also fill out paper versions). City officials screen out surveys from those who live outside the city by checking ZIP Codes.
"We take it seriously," said Szabo, who said the mayor would present the findings early next year (as in years past). "The public can compare the results with the mayor's budget."
Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, a member of the budget committee, said the input was critical in the 2006-07 period when the council was trying to gauge the public's appetite for raising trash fees and hiring more police officers.
"When we are trying to make decisions and people have listed public safety and basic delivery of services as No. 1 and 2 issues, that weighs heavily on us as decision-makers as to which items we preserve or cut," Greuel said. "A lot of times people are really giving honest answers."
Councilwoman Janice Hahn said the survey is a way for neighborhood councils, among others, to become more involved before decisions are made. "It used to be that in the city of Los Angeles, the mayor proposed it, the City Council approved it and then people complained in their neighborhoods -- and people would say, 'Wait until next year.' So this is a way to get neighborhood priorities introduced," Hahn said.
But in tough budget years such as next year, she cautioned, "It's not going to be a wish list scenario."