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L.A.'s Library Measure L 

There's lots of hidden City Hall fat to fuel the 73 shuttered libraries

Thursday, Feb 24 2011
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Last summer, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the City Council achieved a grim milestone. With little discussion, the mayor and 10 of the 15 council members approved unprecedented, punishing library cuts that made L.A. the only significant U.S. municipality, aside from the dying city of Detroit, to shutter its entire public library system two days a week.

At the Cypress Park Branch Library in northeast L.A., children once streamed in on Mondays to work on computers many families can't afford at home, while other students read and avoided the violent Avenues gang after school. Now, with Sundays and Mondays dark and his staff cut far back, librarian Patrick Xavier says, "It's a struggle."

Measure L, a March 8 ballot initiative authored by 8th District L.A. City Councilman Bernard Parks, would undo the fiscal damage to the libraries — which make up only 2 percent of the city's budget — by restoring $11.7 million in 2011-12 to keep them open six days a week. The measure eventually adds $50 million per year without raising taxes, by shifting money from other departments.

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY JASON JONES

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Many civic leaders support Measure L. But powerful critics claim that public safety is probably the only place left to cut to restore libraries. Controversially, the Los Angeles Police Protective League (the police union), is opposing Measure L.

The union's stand relies upon an unsupportable claim by Villaraigosa, City Council President Eric Garcetti and City Council members that there's no fat left in the deficit-riddled city budget.

In fact, the budget is filled with fat, and each lump is vociferously protected.

L.A. City Controller Wendy Greuel and former Controller Laura Chick both found that the Treasurer's Office duplicates too much work of the Office of Finance, costs taxpayers $8.5 million annually, and should be dismantled. Another sacred cow is Villaraigosa's $18.5 million Gang Reduction and Youth Development (GRYD) program. In an audit, Greuel said it is unknown whether GRYD really keeps youths out of gangs.

L.A. Weekly reported in its Sept. 11, 2010, article "City of Airheads" that taxpayers pay $5,245 for each of the 3,500 at-risk youths enrolled in the unproven GRYD program. By contrast, the Weekly found, the 73 libraries serve as many as 15,000 children daily in a safe, academic atmosphere — at a cost of just $6.40 per child annually — and libraries have a long record of keeping kids away from gangs.

GRYD and the Treasurer's Office are hardly the only sacred cows. Villaraigosa and the City Council have refused to take a hard look at how they can streamline their own offices. According to a study by Pew Charitable Trusts, L.A. residents fork over about $1.7 million annually to run each of L.A.'s 15 City Council offices. The main cost: council members' personal staffs of 15 to 22 people, a total of 271 aides.

In the early 1970s, each council member had about five personal aides. The mayor had 59. In the mid-1990s, the City Council created a concept called "as-needed" positions, purportedly to hire a few part-time staffers once the city had grown from 2.8 million to 3.5 million people.

But as-needed hiring is today used by the City Council to hire scores of full-time staff under the radar. On budget documents since 2001, city officials have consistently claimed the council employs 108 people. The City Controller's website tells the truth: The 15 have 271 full-time staff.

During this recession, not a single City Council member has asked Greuel to conduct an audit of his or her office looking for inefficiencies, says her spokesman Ben Golombek. Villaraigosa, whose staff has exploded to 206 people (Richard Riordan got by with 114), also has not asked Greuel to look at his office for savings. His office costs taxpayers $25.1 million a year, about one-third of it from salaries alone.

Today, the mayor's and City Council's personal staffs together total 477 — more than President Barack Obama's White House Office staff.

Meanwhile, the city's Quality and Productivity Commission hasn't produced a report in years on how to make City Hall more efficient. But the commission is busy. Its real job? Producing an annual QP Awards, broadcast on City Hall's public-access TV channel to give awards to city workers.

The libraries could be made whole via Measure L without public-safety money, but Villaraigosa and the City Council have never attempted such a discussion. The council members, who at $178,789 each are the highest paid in the U.S., earning more than members of Congress, don't even know the cost of their staffs.

When L.A. Weekly contacted the offices of all 15 and the Mayor's Office to ask a basic budget question — "How much money is spent annually to subsidize these 477 personal aides' health care premiums?" — only an aide to 8th District City Councilman Bernard Parks could cite a cost of about $10,000 per aide. That's $4.7 million yearly for all 477.

"I do not know the cost of the health care plans," Doane Liu, chief of staff for 11th District City Councilwoman Janice Hahn — who is running for U.S. Congress — writes in an e-mail. Villaraigosa spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton also couldn't answer.

Says Hollywood community activist Bob Blue, "If you don't know what's going on with your own budget, how can you manage the city's budget?"

According to the Personnel Department, L.A. taxpayers cough up about $921 per month to pay each worker's health, dental, disability and life insurance. City workers who choose an HMO pay nothing for health insurance premiums for them and their families — the cost, up to $566.92 per month, is entirely paid by L.A. taxpayers. Employees who choose the top-end family PPO pay $284 toward their $851 premiums.

But the generous premiums are just a fraction of the overhead created by the swelling population of hundreds of political aides. Assistant City Administrative Officer Ray Ciranna tells the Weekly that health, pension and Medicare costs for city workers equal about 40 percent of salary. If a personal aide to the mayor or to a council member makes $50,000, the true cost is $70,000; if they earn $100,000, the real price is $140,000.

The 477 political aides — made up of "field" deputies, press handlers and legislative aides — represent an outsized bureaucracy, even for a city of 4 million. The sheer size comes as a shock to officials in San Francisco, San Jose and San Diego.

In San Francisco, population 815,000, the 11 members of the city's Board of Supervisors (who also act as a city council) employ just two aides apiece. An aide for one chuckles when he hears that L.A. council members employ 15 to 22 aides apiece. After all, the entire city of San Francisco needs just 22.

If San Francisco's board copied L.A. on a per capita basis, they'd hire more than twice as many aides.

In San Jose, population 964,000, Mayor Chuck Reed has 18 staffers. If Reed mimicked Villaraigosa on a per capita basis, he'd employ 50 — far more aides than Reed really needs. An aide for Reed, astonished to learn of Villaraigosa's 206-person office, blurts out: "No kidding!"

In San Diego, population 1.3 million, Mayor Jerry Sanders has a staff of 37. Under Villaraigosa's hiring calculus, Sanders really needs 67 aides. When told the size of Villaraigosa's staff, an aide in that city says simply, "Wow!"

In Phoenix, population 1.5 million, the eight City Council members employ about five aides each, for a total of 40. If they copied L.A. on a per capita basis, they'd employ 104. The Phoenix mayor has 13 political aides, yet to create a personal bureaucracy like Villaraigosa's, he'd need 77.

Last year, when the L.A. City Council voted to mimic Detroit, becoming the only significant U.S. city to darken its libraries two days a week, Phoenix leaders adopted a different philosophy toward core municipal services in a recession: The politicians cut their office budgets, and increased funding for the Phoenix Public Library system.

Contact Patrick Range McDonald at pmcdonald@laweekly.com.

Reach the writer at pmcdonald@laweekly.com

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