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Trash tax doesn't just hire police

City Controller finds some money covers other LAPD expenses. Mayor's office says it's a responsible choice.

July 09, 2008|David Zahniser | Times Staff Writer

The city of Los Angeles collected nearly three times as much money from new trash fees as it spent on the first two years of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's plan for hiring more police officers, according to a report issued Tuesday by City Controller Laura Chick.

The trash fee increase, levied to add 1,000 officers to the Los Angeles Police Department, has generated $137 million since 2006, according to the five-page report.

The 366 officers hired so far cost $47.2 million over the same period, with the rest of the new money going toward other increases to the LAPD budget, Chick said.

The figures quickly drew fire from a representative of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., who said he always suspected that the new trash fee revenue would go primarily to expenses other than new officers, such as overtime and a three-year package of escalating LAPD raises.

"Often what happens to tax increases in this city is, instead of getting more employees, we just get better-paid employees," said Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the taxpayer group.

Villaraigosa spokesman Matt Szabo criticized efforts to separate the cost of new officers from other increased expenses. Overtime pay, raises, new squad cars and new equipment for members of the existing force were pivotal to the expansion of the Police Department and therefore should also be considered part of the buildup's total cost, Szabo said.

"It isn't practical, nor would it be responsible, to attempt to expand the department on the cheap," he said. "That's one of the reasons the prior two [mayoral] administrations failed to expand the department as they promised."

Szabo produced a different set of numbers, showing the LAPD buildup costing $84 million more last year than the city collected from new trash fees.

Villaraigosa initiated the higher trash fees in 2006, standing with Chick and City Council members as he vowed to fulfill his campaign promise of adding 1,000 officers to the department, which Police Chief William J. Bratton often characterized as the smallest big-city force in the nation. A booklet about the plan prepared at that time said the extra trash fees would pay for "additional public safety services."

A news release written for the launch of the LAPD expansion went even further. "Every new dollar residents pay for trash pickup will be used to put more officers on the streets," the mayor said in the release, dated April 12, 2006.

Weeks later, hoping to avoid a legal challenge under the anti-tax measure Proposition 218, the council broadened the mayor's goal, saying the top priority for the new money would be police hiring and public safety in general.

Chick said she prepared the analysis because she promised, when the plan was announced, to account for its cost. The effort frustrated Chick for nearly a year as she sought information from Villaraigosa and the city's top financial analysts.

Now that she knows the total, Chick said she would have been far more specific about how the fees would be used.

"If I had known, if I had played the numbers properly, I would have said that a third of this money is going to go toward new officers and the rest is going to go to public safety," she said.

The city's plan for paying for the LAPD buildup has been a shifting target. When it was announced, trash fees for single-family homes were supposed to increase from $11 a month to $28 a month over a four-year period, or by 2010.

The council dramatically accelerated the fee hikes, bringing them to $26 within 16 months -- a move signed into law by the mayor.

The increases coincided with a decision by the mayor and the council to give three back-to-back pay raises to LAPD officers -- 3% in the first year, 3.5% in the second and 3.75% in the third.

When the city's budget shortfall ballooned to $406 million earlier this year, Villaraigosa proposed a second increase to the trash fee, taking it to $36.26 a month for homeowners starting in September. Residents of apartment buildings with four or fewer units would see the monthly fee per unit jump from $17.16 to $24.33.

The council voted in May to approve Villaraigosa's budget, which included the latest round of fee increases and an additional $15.8 million in LAPD overtime pay. Still, the council will need to cast another vote on the new fee hikes later this summer.

Tuesday's report did not take into consideration the latest increase in trash fees, looking only at the first two years of the LAPD buildup. In her report, Chick defined the cost of the expansion as the salaries, benefits, recruitment and training incurred by each new officer.

With trash fees now at the maximum level allowed under state law, Villaraigosa and the council have pushed up fees at other agencies, including the Recreation and Parks Department and Animal Services Department. Parking tickets will cost $5 more. And on Tuesday, the council increased the cost of the removing "the boot" -- a clamp on the tires of repeatedly ticketed vehicles -- from $125 to $150.

Chick said she is not troubled that the trash fee money has gone toward the Police Department. But she said city officials should be clearer in the future in explaining how they spend taxpayer funds.

"It's so essential for elected leaders to be very careful about what they're promising," she said. "The good news is that the mayor asked me to report on it, and now there's a very clear and transparent picture of how the money has been used."

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david.zahniser@latimes.com

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