The city of Los Angeles ended 2006 with the high-profile killings of two children: a 9-year-old girl in Angeleno Heights and a 14-year-old girl in Harbor Gateway who, police say, was targeted in part because of her race.
In the wake of those tragedies, the city's elected officials began work on a tax measure that would raise $30 million for anti-gang initiatives, including after-school programs and city-run recreation activities.
But with crime rates steadily falling and the region's economic picture growing dire, backers of Proposition A are finding it difficult to remind voters of those tragedies -- and of the need to avoid future ones. So they are also arguing that the proposed tax hike, on the Nov. 4 ballot, has come at a perfect time, just as the city's anti-gang programs have been revamped and moved into the office of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
"With the progress we've made in the last year, we're going to use these funds in a better way than we would have even a year ago," said Deputy Mayor Jeff Carr, the man tapped to be Villaraigosa's gang czar.
The debate over anti-gang programs also comes as the Los Angeles Police Department is seeing notable successes. Since the hiring of Police Chief William J. Bratton, the number of killings citywide has decreased 38%, from 641 in 2002 to 394 in 2007. If this year's trends hold, that number could fall as low as 350.
Carr said the city should take advantage of the progress it has made on crime by strategically adding money to programs that attack the gang problem from another direction.
Still, some neighborhood leaders say they are tired of being hit up for more money to fund the city's public safety initiatives. In just two years, Villaraigosa and the City Council have more than tripled the trash fee for homeowners, raising it from $132 per year to $436 per year to pay for LAPD pay raises, new equipment and the hiring of 1,000 officers.
Proposition A would add $36 to annual property tax bills, regardless of a parcel's size.
Foes of Proposition A deride that approach, saying homeowners shouldn't have to pay the same sum as a large corporation.
"It's unfair to tax a 60-story office building and a 1,200-square-foot home the same amount," said Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn., who signed the ballot argument against Proposition A.
Councilwoman Janice Hahn, the measure's primary backer, argues that the city would avert even more crimes if it had more after-school programs, such as the Boys and Girls Club and the city program known as L.A.'s Best. As more kids are kept away from gangs, the cost of investigations and incarcerations would go down, she said.
"We know that each gang murder costs $1.67 million to process," Hahn said. "The city spent $400 million on 268 gang murders just last year."
To bolster its support among fiscal conservatives, the Proposition A campaign has relied on support from former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican who is a longtime backer of after-school programs. Backers of Proposition A also frequently drop Bratton's name when discussing the measure.
Still, Proposition A has had plenty of competition on a crowded ballot. Villaraigosa has spent much of his time focusing on Measure R, the half-cent sales tax for transportation. And Bratton has been appearing in mailers for Measure Q, a $7-billion school bond.
Competition from those measures, along with the larger economic meltdown, has made it difficult for Hahn and her allies to raise as much as they had hoped for the Proposition A campaign. Backers of the measure don't have enough money to buy television time or to run their own radio ads.
Still, Hahn said she feels the need to press ahead by trying to make a difference after the death of Cheryl Green, the 14-year-old who was slain two years ago in Harbor Gateway. Hahn said that murder convinced her of the need to give young people more options after school.
"It was just the tipping point," Hahn said.
"I said, 'I've got to do something citywide, find money that won't be diverted or tampered with, to go toward preventing gangs.' "