By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
It’s all over, including most of the shouting. The L.A. city budget has been revised and officially approved by the City Council. Mayor James Hahn and LAPD Chief William Bratton are not one bit happy about it. The rest of us should be unhappy as well — for different reasons.
For those who’ve not followed the minutiae of L.A. politics, a quick recap: In mid-May, Hahn presented his $5.1 billion city budget. While there was some strategic belt tightening, and a few new expenditures, there were no surprises in the 164-page, glossy-printed summary of the cash-flow plan for the period that begins in July. In terms of added costs, the council designated $7.3 million extra for the ongoing library-renovation project and another $6.5 million for refurbishing the Griffith Observatory, a project that should total out at $63 million. And an extra $18 million to recruit and hire 320 new police officers, with another $4.2 million slated for the LAPD’s reorganization plan, a departmental restructuring strategy that Bratton and his command staff have been laboring over since the beginning of the year.
Even in these bleak-budget times, the police expense seemed reasonable, since it is widely acknowledged that the LAPD is too absurdly understaffed to adequately protect and serve. Of the nation’s five largest cities, Los Angeles has by far the worst cop-to-resident ratio. New York, Chicago and Philadelphia have one sworn officer to every 220 citizens, while Los Angeles weighs in at one cop per 440 residents. In 1998, when the department’s numbers were at their highest (before the Rampart scandal caused a gusher of retirements and resignations), the LAPD’s 9,800 officers were still deemed insufficient. Now, with only 9,100 in uniform, Los Angeles possesses the slowest emergency-response time of all major metropolitan areas, a situation that Chief Bratton says he can improve, but not fix until he gets additional bodies.
Bratton has already proved he could do more with less, managing to lower the city’s murder rate by more than 25 percent over this time last year, when L.A. led the country in killings. By all accounts, he’s done so by policing smarter, not harder, steering clear of the heavy-handed tactics that have gotten previous LAPD administrations in trouble in the past. Yet while overall homicide stats have dropped, bloodletting in the city’s poorer neighborhoods remains a nightly occurrence. As a result, even longtime police critics agreed that more cops on patrol was a matter of crucial importance. “It’s pointless to talk about community policing when we don’t have enough police to do it,” said civil rights attorney Connie Rice (who will soon head up a new Rampart probe panel). Homeboy Industries head Father Greg Boyle expressed a similar view. “When more police are on the street, kids are less apt to shoot at each other,” he said. “The city’s response to gangs has to include prevention, intervention and enforcement. Right now we need to shore up the enforcement piece so that our streets can return to some reasonable state of calm and peace, and the prevention and intervention can proceed.”
When Hahn’s budget came up for a vote, the City Council’s budget committee approved most of it without a blink. But before returning the final numbers to the mayor, the committee snipped 35 line items out of the general fund, transferring them to the “we’ll think about these later” column known as the “unappropriated balance.”
Most of the 35 articles yanked were unremarkable. The council put off re-paving 36 miles of the city’s sidewalks originally slated for repair, saving $4.8 million. (Why it costs the city $133,000 to repair a mile of concrete sidewalk is a question best left for another day.) It declined to pay for a new assistant general manager for the L.A. Zoo, saving another $194,175. Five miles of L.A.’s unimproved streets won’t be paved right away either (adding $905,000 in savings). And a $2.5 million expense listed mysteriously as “petroleum products” was summarily excised.
And . . . the council decided to cut all the extra money intended for the cops.
Hahn and Bratton were stunned. Thus far, most council members had been decidedly friendly on public-safety issues. In fact, since Bratton was appointed chief last fall, only two other major questions had come up, and in both cases the council had given the police what they wanted: The council agreed to buy pricey new gas masks and protective suits for first responders to wear in case of a biochemical attack and supported the department’s decision to stop answering unconfirmed burglar-alarm calls. Although there was a brief kerfuffle over the latter when alarm companies deluged their customers with the hysterical contention that citizens would soon be raped and murdered in their beds, eventually reason and the chief prevailed.
In justifying its born-again enthusiasm for fiscal restraint, the council stated that the mayor’s financial people were wrong in asserting that they had produced a balanced budget, and that its own analysts predicted a $280 million deficit in the next few years — hence the cuts. Yet, as the 35 excised items added up to only $69 million, the Mayor’s Office expressed bafflement. “So what are they saying?” muttered a member of Hahn’s senior staff. “That a $280 million deficit is bad, but a $211 million one is acceptable?”