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Asking for money when times are tough

With jobs and services on the line in L.A. because of the recession, using municipal money for parades and memorials can seem frivolous.

July 12, 2009|Cathleen Decker

Last week marked a passage of sorts, and not just for Michael Jackson.

For decades, celebrity and Los Angeles have engaged in a torrid affair, with government serving as their matchmaker. High-profile events -- the Oscars, the Grammys -- furthered the city's view of itself as celebrity central. Even the low points -- O.J.'s white Bronco run to infamy -- served to cement the marriage. For better or worse, the city's view of itself as the place where the famous hold court under palm trees has been part of its image DNA, abetted by government dollars.

In the last few weeks, however, it has become abundantly clear that a union sustained in good times has hit the shoals as things turned bad.

Three weeks ago, city officials balked at financing the costs of the Lakers' championship parade, even as the mayor and others clamored for attention from the thousands who swooned over Kobe and Company. And last week came another assertion of the limits of government largesse, as some city officials demanded that someone -- anyone other than taxpayers -- pick up the costs associated with the memorial for pop star Jackson.

The dual situations had less to do with a political calculation that Jackson or the Lakers are not popular enough to warrant city money than with the reality that there is little money to spend.

With the city threatening layoffs and the state crushed under its own massive deficit, there is high dudgeon over anything that might appear to be frivolous, particularly to those about to take a hit.

Thus the city has stiffed the Lakers -- and is in the process of trying to stiff the Jackson entourage -- a sharp contrast to its willingness to spend large amounts on middlingly popular events like the 2000 Democratic convention, which cost Los Angeles city government millions of dollars.

"We are in an acute situation now," said Rick Tuttle. For 16 years, Tuttle served as city controller, a tenure that ended in 2001 and included several Lakers parades and other celebrity-driven festivities. He does not recall the city balking over the cost of similar events in his day.

"This," he said, "is a brutal recession we're in."

Things are rarely clean-cut when it comes to civic image, however. So part of the debate recently has been this: Which events should be underwritten by the city because their benefits accrue to the immediate bottom line for city businesses or, in ways that pay longer-term dividends, to the city's psychic worth? Which fall short of that mark?

The answers are not so easy to divine, for these events or past ones. City and business officials can say that hotels were booked solid during the memorial. And those folks ate somewhere, to the resulting benefit of establishments that pay taxes. But it is less easy to figure how many people were driven from Los Angeles by the hoopla, and thus calculate the net impact.

For every Tuttle, who believes it is "absolutely right" for private entities to repay the cost of the Jackson memorial, there is someone like former Los Angeles Police Department Chief Daryl F. Gates, who feels security is the city's responsibility.

"For God's sake. People pay their taxes," said Gates, who said Lakers' parades in his tenure were paid for by the city. "To reach out and try to get people to contribute money is, I think, unseemly."

The mayor's office appeared last week to be protecting a middle ground.

"Los Angeles is a world-class city, and like any world-class city it should be able to host major world-class events," said Matt Szabo, speaking for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who was then vacationing in Africa. The current dust-up, he said, "is a direct byproduct of the magnitude of the recession."

Szabo seemed to suggest that when the economy recovers, the city will return to its more open-handed ways. The mayor, he said "is not interested" in engaging in a constant debate over funding.

"We have the Grammys, we have the Oscars, we have the Lakers, we have events in the city all the time that generate millions and millions of dollars in benefit and create hundreds of jobs," he said. "If we are in a position to nitpick every time we deploy a patrol car, that would be the height of inefficiency."

But it may not be quite so easy to return to form. The biggest previous rebellion over state revenues and spending, 1978's Proposition 13 movement, was one of the factors in Los Angeles' refusal to underwrite the Olympics held in the city six years later. After Proposition 13 passed, limiting property taxes, local residents endorsed a measure that forbade the use of city money on the Olympics without reimbursement.

Thus, the Olympic organizers had to pay the LAPD nearly $12 million, a city report from the time said, in addition to a similar amount from an Olympic ticket and bed tax. The organizers could spare the money, as it turned out; the first ever privately organized and financed Games closed with a $232-million surplus.

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