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The sad need for city layoffs

It's hard to blame some L.A. council members for still trying to find an alternative to laying off employees. But financial responsibility requires the move, and the city must get on with it.

July 01, 2010

It's easy to understand why some members of the Los Angeles City Council are looking for any opportunity to avoid, or at least delay, laying off city workers. Layoffs undermine the city's ability to provide services, they impose administrative costs and they increase the ranks of families in economic pain. They also deliver an unfriendly message to hardworking public employees who remain on the job at a time when many of the very residents they serve accuse them, wrongly, of being the cause of the city's budget problem.

The budget problem was caused not by city workers but by factors within city management's control, including a too-hopeful reliance on an improving economy and on annually increasing revenues. Life doesn't work that way; recessions come and revenues drop, and city leaders must be prepared to meet those rainy days with sufficient cash put away during the good times, or, as now, with painful and disruptive job and service cuts, with hurried sell-offs of city property and with irritating (at best) and sometimes burdensome fee increases.

And let's be frank: The budget problem was helped along by factors outside city management's control, such as the depth and duration of this particular recession, the structural problems of state government and Sacramento's penchant for passing along its own woes to cities and counties.

But after going through the exercise of figuring out whose fault it was and what the consequences of layoffs will be, we're left in the same place: The city can't currently afford its payroll. It would be irresponsible not to push forward with painful but necessary job cuts on the wistful premise that maybe tax and fee revenues will somehow come in above current projections.

There don't appear to be any sweeping revenue solutions either, even though there might be a few dollars to recover here or there. Controller Wendy Greuel is expected to report today that the city collects only about 53% of money owed to it, virtually unchanged since a similar audit three years ago. That amounts to about $260 million a year. On a more modest scale, the city should give up free parking for residents visiting City Hall. Angelenos should be encouraged to come downtown to testify, but $7 or so to park is hardly a poll tax, and it could save a few jobs — and some city services.

Credit rating firms have long expressed the utmost faith in Los Angeles' ability and willingness to pay its bills, but they began to get cold feet this year when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa fumbled over a proposed power rate increase and he and the council appeared, for a while, to be moving in different directions on the budget. The mayor and council have now restored a semblance of order, and the city is again eligible for the lowest possible rates for borrowing money — something it needs to do as it pays its bills and waits for its tax revenues to come in. City leaders have to stay the painful course — with layoffs now, and with more prudent planning and spending in the future.

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