During the Budget and Finance Committee hearings for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's proposed 2011-12 budget, Stephen Box gamely took a seat inside the ornate John Ferraro Council Chamber in Los Angeles City Hall and watched things slowly unfold over four days of sometimes mind-numbing testimony. It wasn't always the highest of dramas, but Box, a community activist, bicycling advocate and recent City Council candidate, wanted to see how city leaders were running L.A.
At a table at the front of the high-ceilinged chamber, city department heads answered questions from the budget committee's chairman, Councilman Bernard Parks. Some squirmed, others were defiant, and still others praised the mayor and his staff — though Villaraigosa was thousands of miles away visiting Chicago and Washington, D.C., during most of the hearings.
"There's no kind of holistic or systemic approach to running the city," Box reflects later. "We're not improving or solving long-term problems, just postponing."
Los Angeles City Hall is overspending by $52,168 per hour, which translates into a budget deficit, beginning July 1, of $457 million. (That's the mayor's figure. Chief Legislative Analyst Gerry Miller and the council's budget committee say the figure is $336 million.) Box says the mayor's proposed budget is "obtuse" and difficult for anyone to comprehend — or to fundamentally repair. "I don't know if it's incompetence or a conspiracy," Box says. "But this thing is very hard to understand. Civic engagement at City Hall is always a struggle, and then we're chastised if we don't know all of the facts."
L.A. Weekly examined the budget for the mayor's own office in an effort to understand just a small snapshot from Villaraigosa's 389-page citywide budget proposal, which the City Council has just two weeks in May to understand, adjust and approve as its blueprint for fixing a badly ailing city.
The paper found that Villaraigosa's official budget for his own office — in many ways a microcosm of the $6.9 billion city budget — understates by millions of dollars what Villaraigosa will spend on his staff, understates by nearly 100 percent the number of employees working for him, and falls far short of an "11 percent cut" to the Mayor's Office. The paper also found that key officials who should know specific, basic fiscal details about the operations of the Mayor's Office are in the dark.
Villaraigosa recently announced to an audience of cheering, impressed students at Jefferson High School that he is cutting his own office by 11 percent — and the L.A. media repeated his claim. The Weekly has determined his true office budget cut is about 2 percent and his operation alone will cost taxpayers about $42 million.
The dubious data speak to an identical but broader practice by Los Angeles leaders of maintaining secrecy when presenting city budget costs to the public; obscuring the existence of huge, undiscussed budget expenditures such as automatic bonuses; and using other questionable methods that have helped create rolling deficits and major cuts in city services each year.
Last year, false claims by City Council members and the mayor — that the fat had been cut — allowed Villaraigosa and Councilman Eric Garcetti to convince a compliant and largely unquestioning City Council to close all 73 Los Angeles libraries two days a week. It was a radical move, one that was rejected in every other significant U.S. city hammered by the recession. The move gave L.A. a black eye nationally.
Now, the same secret spending that helped precipitate the library closures is again larded throughout Villaraigosa's $6.9 billion budget, which the City Council begins debating on May 17.
The situation underscores a deep concern of Box and other City Hall observers: that L.A.'s policymakers don't have the chops to steer the city out of its budget crisis, and that taxpayers are effectively left in the dark.
For example, looking at the microcosm, Villaraigosa's proposed budget states that 94 employees work for the mayor during this current fiscal year, with total salaries costing $7.7 million.
This is untrue. In this fiscal year, Villaraigosa spent more than twice that dollar figure, at one point employing more than 200 staffers — many more than were hired by mayors James Hahn or Richard Riordan. Documents obtained by L.A. Weekly through a California Public Records Act request show he recently thinned his staff slightly through attrition to 196, including 173 full-time and part-time employees, 16 who are "borrowed" from around City Hall and seven paid interns.
Villaraigosa goes on to claim in his 2011-12 budget that his office will cost $6.8 million for salaries. That is also untrue — too low by nearly 100 percent. Mirroring the rest of City Hall, which employs 32,267 workers, the mayor plans no layoffs in his office.
How does Villaraigosa fund his hidden 79 employees, who didn't appear in last year's budget and don't appear again in the July 1 budget, seeking just 94 slots?