By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
IN 2006 THE CITY OF LOS ANGELES posted an announcement in the tiny Metropolitan News-Enterprise paper. It proclaimed that anyone who wished to fight the transfer of almost $30 million from the Department of Water and Power to the city’s general fund had better act quick or the funds would be quietly transferred each year, ad infinitum.
It was, critics said, a case of slick lawyering. The City Council and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — accustomed to direct control over how to spend a special 5 percent fee padded onto residents’ water bills — wanted to ensure that those unfettered funds for pet projects, over which ratepaying households have no say, would continue to flow.
The reason for the Metropolitan News announcement: Villaraigosa and Council President Eric Garcetti had been formally put on notice that their behavior was illegal. A California Supreme Court decision said the money collected for water and power services must be used to run those services.
Today, two years later, that growing pot of 5-percent-fee money cannot be spent because the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has filed as a defendant in the elegantly titled “City of Los Angles vs. All Persons.” But the tussle over this potential slush fund raised through DWP fees is part of a larger trend. With the national and regional economies tanking, the 15 City Council members and mayor are showering Angelenos with an ever-growing collection of fees, fines, taxes and special charges.
Some say the special cost hikes are unprecedented in Los Angeles in the past generation, and economists warn that City Hall is unwisely heaping charges on working-class and professional families at the worst possible time, just as they are getting slammed with layoffs, salary cuts and trimmed hours.
For economists like USC’s Ayse Imrohoroglu, the calculation is simple, even if it mystifies the City Council and mayor: “In an economic downturn ... anything that reduces economic activity is a bad thing. Taxes and fees, wherever applied, will reduce that activity.“
From sewage to solid waste, camping fees to solar panels, parking tickets to towing charges, phone taxes to golf fees, stiff new costs are hitting hundreds of thousands of working households and small businesses that dominate L.A.’s teetering economy.
Says Joel Kotkin, Chapman University Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures, “I don’t even know why we have a City Council. Just dissolve it and save the money there. It’s not like they question things. You should just have Antonio directly report to the public-employee unions and developers — and see what they want.”
In May 2006, the City Council announced a trash-collection fee that Villaraigosa sold to residents by publicly promising it would go to hiring 1,000 new cops. In concert with that, the City Council has boosted the trash fee 330 percent, from $11 to $36.32.
The fee hike goes far beyond the actual cost of collecting and dumping trash. By this fall, it had generated a $137 million mountain of cash. But Villaraigosa’s vow that the excess funds would go to hiring cops proved untrue. An audit by city Controller Laura Chick has shown that Villaraigosa and Police Chief William Bratton spent only $47.2 million hiring new officers. Much of the rest went to raises and perks for the powerful police union.
Although no laws were broken in the failure to spend the money as promised, Chick says (in a careful parsing of the actions by her political ally, Villaraigosa) that the mayor “incorrectly stated that the fees would be used exclusively to hire new officers, which we [now] know is not the case.”
Greg Lippe, chairman of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association, a business interest group based in Woodland Hills, says the special trash charge is a prime example of City Hall’s shady tactics during this economic downturn. “What they do is get people scared,” Lippe says. “They get people by saying, ‘We need this money because otherwise you won’t be protected’” by the cops.
There’s much more to come. Soon, water rates will jump by $5.25 on a typical water bill, but costs will be far higher for those who regularly water their lawn. Former DWP president Nick Patsaouras, who is running in March for Chick’s high-profile seat as city controller, warns that under the current trajectory, power rates “will skyrocket 35 percent” in the next few years, pushing average bills from about $50 to $72.50.
Economists say a key selling point for graffiti-riddled, billboard-choked, overbuilt and increasingly unpleasant L.A. is its very cheap power, which is aggressively cited to woo businesses back. But in March the City Council is placing the so-called “Green Energy and Good Jobs for Los Angeles Act” on the ballot. Experts say it could pass, and that means that cheap energy, one of the city’s few remaining selling points besides its weather, could vanish. Residents and other ratepayers are expected to pay billions to cover the solar project, a hastily drummed-up idea which comes with no cost controls. (See “L.A. City Council Makes Solar Look Bad.”)
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