Bad Moon Rising

How is L.A. dealing with its looming budget deficit?

Don’t ask city hall

By Mark Lacter, Los Angeles Magazine

On the surface not much has changed. City Hall looks as imposing as it did when its doors opened in 1928. Cops are still patrolling, firefighters are still responding, trash still gets picked up once a week, and potholes, by and large, still get filled. But make no mistake: L.A. is different, and not in a good way. Desperate to close massive budget deficits for each of the past five years, city officials are hollowing out government before our eyes. They’re mainly doing it on the sly by borrowing money, deferring maintenance and overtime, benefiting from onetime revenue gains, and moving pockets of available cash from department to department. Most of all they’re eliminating thousands of jobs through retirements, transfers, and hiring freezes. Excluding police, L.A.’s workforce has been cut by 21 percent over the past half decade, to around 18,000. Not since Tom Bradley stepped down as mayor in 1993, when the city had 400,000 fewer people, has civilian employment been so low.

This is more than just a few numbers moving in the wrong direction. What’s at stake is nearly every city service that people living and working in Los Angeles take for granted each day. The fire department, for example, has lost so many positions that response times are now longer for fires and medical emergencies. Recreation centers have been forced to eliminate day care and seniors programs while cutting Sunday and holiday hours. The Department of Transportation won’t accept new requests for preferential parking designations because it doesn’t have enough people to manage the extra work. Even good news comes with a catch: L.A. is repaving more streets than ever before, but because a different department is responsible for restriping lanes and painting STOP markings on the road—and because money in that department is short—the work often gets delayed for weeks, creating traffic hazards.

“You see a government that’s struggling to provide basic city services,” says city controller and mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel, who has lost 21 percent of her staff since she took office in July 2009. Greuel is in full campaign mode when describing L.A.’s crumbling infrastructure and degradation of services, but I heard the same lament, both on and off the record, from officials not running for anything. Miguel Santana, who oversees budget matters as the city administrative officer and whose candid comments haven’t always been well received among lawmakers, describes the cuts as a form of crisis management that offers immediate relief but no long-range cure. “In an effort to keep the patient alive, we did things that we normally wouldn’t have done,” he says.

Continue reading: How is L.A. dealing with its looming budget deficit? Don’t ask city hall