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Attention Cirque du L.A. ringmasters: Do your jobs

For years, leaders have complained about fiscal mismanagement. For years, the complaints were ignored.

April 11, 2010|Steve Lopez

Late in 2007, my wife and I were looking to lease a full-size station wagon so she could lug our daughter's bike and other stuff around. But gas prices were high, the economy was in trouble and job security was shaky. So, like a lot of people who were scaling back at the time, we opted for a pint-size wagon because of the better mileage and lower monthly payment.

If only the politicians running Los Angeles lived in the same world the rest of us inhabit.

Had I consulted Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa or the financial wizards on the City Council before choosing a car, we'd have leased a couple of Lincoln Town Cars, hired drivers for both, and promised them raises and terrific benefits.

Have you been paying attention, folks?

They could sell tickets to the spectacle at City Hall -- it might help fill the budget gap -- and I've got the perfect name for the show.

Cirque du L.A.

"There's no way you can avoid blaming those that are in charge," admitted City Councilman Bernard C. Parks, a fiscal conservative who has been a little more responsible than others, but agrees that both the council and mayor deserve some good licks.

OK, here goes.

Sure, every level of government in the country has been hit hard. But L.A.'s financial fiasco didn't creep up on us. City leaders have been warned for several years about the recklessness of running up deficits of $200 million to $250 million year after year. But the dunderheads kept hiring, adding a few thousand more employees and promising them the kind of benefits and pensions that no longer exist outside the bubble of government work.

Then, in 2007, even as private-sector workers were losing their jobs, city leaders gave a coalition of public employee unions a nice raise. And it gets worse.

Just four months ago -- at a time when toddlers, chimps and even some invertebrates were worrying about the dire economic outlook -- the mayor and council UNANIMOUSLY approved a five-year package of bonuses and raises for Department of Water and Power employees, represented by an all-powerful union, even though their salaries were already 20% to 30% higher than workers in other city departments.

Yep, that's the same DWP that operates as if it were a sovereign nation and is now refusing to turn $73.5 million over to the general fund, even though the utility hasn't exactly been transparent, and even though that $73.5 million is not its money.

It's ours.

And our problems go way beyond the DWP.

One day we're told by the mayor that we're on the verge of bankruptcy and he's going to shut down some city departments two days a week. The next day he says hey, never mind, he just found $26 million he wasn't expecting to see.

One week we're told the workforce will be cut by 1,000, a few weeks later it's up to 4,000.

Meanwhile, the city's chief administrative officer has ended up in rehab, a former DWP board member is suing the DWP for the withheld $73.5 million, the mayor and City Council are feuding over terms of a DWP rate increase, a Wall Street firm has lowered the city's bond rating because of the childish politics, and a former mayoral candidate who was defeated by Villaraigosa is threatening to sign a mayoral recall petition.

There are chief administrative officer "reports going back to Oct. 17, 2005, three months after Villaraigosa takes office and has been on City Council a couple of years . . . that we're going to have a shortfall of $240 million," said attorney Walter Moore, one of the candidates Villaraigosa beat with a humbling 55% of the vote in the last election.

For better and sometimes worse, Villaraigosa is a more attentive mayor than he was when distracted by various political and personal pursuits. Winning support for a ballot measure to raise transportation funding was remarkable, said Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies, and devising a plan to get federal funding for transit projects over 10 years instead of 30 was brilliant.

But Stern suspects some "lame duck-itis is already starting," with the City Council standing up to the second-term mayor over budget matters and control of the DWP.

If you ask me, the mayor's pattern is to under-react to problems for too long, and then clumsily try to push through fixes before he's worked out the details.

Instead of learning from the humiliating defeat of his botched solar energy proposal in 2009, he called last month for a DWP rate increase of up to 28% per household without establishing the financial need or explaining exactly when and how the hike would help the agency convert to cleaner energy.

Sure, we'd like to be green. But what does that mean?

Meanwhile, Villaraigosa hires the former head of a private equity firm to create jobs and make City Hall more business-friendly, then goes and ticks off the entire business community with the proposed DWP rate increase.

Laura Chick, the state inspector general and former L.A. city controller who warned of financial disaster in 2007, said the mayor and council have artificially slapped budgets together annually with no regard for the structural deficit or long-term consequences.

"Wow. Just, wow. I keep looking, I keep reading and shaking my head in wonderment, amazement and dismay," Chick said.

Her advice to the Cirque du L.A. ringmasters?

"Do your jobs," Chick said. "Balance the budget. Figure out how to live within your means. Figure out the top priority services you must continue to do and find better ways to do it.

"Do your jobs."

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