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L.A. budget chief says police hiring at risk without lease of city parking garages

The mayor's top financial advisor says even if a deal is reached, L.A. still needs to pursue a 'drastic' round of short-term cuts that would be among the deepest of the city's current financial crisis.

January 06, 2011|By David Zahniser, Los Angeles Times
  • Newly graduated LAPD officers toss their hats into the air. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has repeatedly insisted that the department hire enough officers to replace those who resign or retire, keeping the force at 9,963.
Newly graduated LAPD officers toss their hats into the air. Mayor Antonio… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

The top financial advisor to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said Wednesday that the city would need to stop hiring police officers if the City Council abandons plans to lease nine public parking garages to a private operator.

City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana issued his warning as he recommended that council members press ahead with plans to find a company to run the garages, including three in Hollywood, for the next 50 years.

Officials had hoped to secure up to $300 million from the deal. Of that total, Villaraigosa and council members were counting on $53 million to balance this year's budget. But Santana said the city could no longer count on that money because the proposal is being reworked to satisfy business groups that fear it would lead to increased parking rates.

Those changes probably would make the deal less lucrative. Even if the garage deal is finalized, the city will need to pursue a "drastic" round of short-term cuts, Santana said.

"We have to assume we may not make our target, and as result, we have to start making cuts now," he said.

Santana's proposed cuts are among the deepest of the city's current financial crisis. They include a 50% citywide reduction in money for graffiti removal, a $10-million cut to the Fire Department and 10 extra furlough days for certain civilian employees, some of whom are already taking 26 unpaid days off this year, according to a report issued Wednesday.

The council is expected to decide next Wednesday whether to offer potential bidders a proposed parking garage concession agreement. Santana has argued repeatedly that the city has been a poor steward of the garages, using taxpayer subsidies to keep rates low.

Business leaders in Westwood, Hollywood and elsewhere have come to the council chambers to protest the parking plan, saying they fear a private operator will drive away customers by dramatically hiking hourly rates.

Santana said he has met with representatives from Hollywood, which has three of the nine garages and 62% of the 8,231 parking spaces up for grabs. Although he agreed to propose changes for Hollywood and Westwood, he warned that there could be larger consequences from rewriting the proposal in a way that diminishes the value of a long-term lease.

"If the garage deal does not hit the dollar amount we want, or the council does not go through with it, we're recommending a suspension in police hiring for the final [months] of this fiscal year," he said.

Santana's comments came one day after Villaraigosa held an event to celebrate a drop in homicides last year to 1967 levels — just 297 during 2010. The mayor has repeatedly insisted that the Los Angeles Police Department hire enough officers to replace those who resign or retire, keeping the force at 9,963.

Villaraigosa's deputy chief of staff, Matt Szabo, said his boss was still committed to the garage plan and appalled at the alternative scenario for the Police Department. "The idea that we would take cops off the street to maintain free parking subsidies is borderline insanity," he said.

Meanwhile, one foe of the garage plan accused Santana of using public safety — and the possibility of fewer police officers — as a way to pressure uncertain council members into embracing the garage deal.

"He needs to develop a long-term solution that doesn't sacrifice private sector jobs that generate tax revenue for the city," said Laura Lake, co-president of Save Westwood Village, which has criticized the inclusion of the 366-space Broxton Avenue garage in the plan. "The plan to lease city garages for 50 years is a job and revenue killer."

The parking plan also has drawn criticism from Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who says it will provide a single year of financial relief and then leave council members with tough decisions — such as whether to seek more layoffs — in the next budget year. Parks said the council should confront its long-term problems head-on by reducing the overall size of the workforce.

Santana said he agreed that more layoffs would be needed to address the city's budget crisis. But he argued that furloughs and the other cuts would protect the city's reserve fund over the short term, which would in turn bolster the city's credit rating — keeping the cost of borrowing from going up later this year.

"More layoffs are inevitable in the city" workforce, he said. "They just can't be done fast enough to address this specific problem we're facing."

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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