EVERY POLITICIAN SHOULD BE as wonderfully clear and direct as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was two years ago, when he unveiled his grandiose plan to hire 1,000 new police officers and pay for them by imposing a whopping hike in fees for trash collection.
Illustration by Mitch Handsone
(Click to enlarge)
Stealing a line from Al Gore, Villaraigosa stood at a press conference and vowed to put the trash fees in a “lock box” solely for hiring more cops.
“I want this money not to dribble and drabble and go to all the things that it can go to in that black hole,” Villaraigosa said, in apparent reference to L.A.’s byzantine bureaucracy. “I want it to go to the men and women in blue. I want to make sure ... that all the money generated by the trash fee ... is specifically for building our police force.”
Too bad it was a fib, another ruse by jaded leadership, or, at the very least, a woefully inept explanation of how he would spend the new riches flowing downtown, and why.
Now, the word is finally out that a meager one-third of the new trash fees collected — $47 million so far — goes to hiring cops. Not 1,000, but only 366 new sworn personnel were deployed. The rest of the quietly collected windfall — $90 million sapped from residents’ trash bills that have soared to $312 per year — has dribbled and drabbled into police overhead and back-to-back raises, according to a newly released audit.
“What a rip-off. It’s a big shell game,” says activist Walter Moore, a business attorney running for mayor, whose “hobby” is city budgets. “I get to thinking, now I’m finally cynical. Nothing will surprise me. Then I open the paper and read this stuff.” He laughs ruefully. “They keep lowering the bar. How low will they sink? They’ll sink as low as we let them.”
The controversy erupted when City Controller Laura Chick released an analysis of how the trash cash has been spent — a simple, four-page document she wanted to release a year ago — but the mayor resisted giving her the data.
Chick was a few feet from him in 2006, when Villaraigosa took his adamant stand about only hiring new cops. Tight with the mayor, Chick promised to keep an eye on his handling of the cash. But her attempts to audit the trash-fee riches flowing downtown were zealously stonewalled by Villaraigosa and his number cruncher, Chief Administrative Officer Karen Sisson.
“It’s been like pulling teeth working with the mayor and the CAO to get information,” Chick says in an unusual jab at her close pal. “We called angry and upset multiple times, pushing on this. I had to keep pressuring. There’s no doubt in my mind they wanted me to go away. The excuses were many and varied, and for a long time I was being told there was no way to do this [audit]. I was very upset. I was pounding on their doors for the numbers.”
Chick says it is depressing to waste time and money preparing four pages that should have been a snap. “Close to a year, we were going back and forth,” she says. “These were top public officials in the city, and there was just never any reason it took so long.”
But there was a powerful political reason why Sisson and Villaraigosa held back the truth — that two-thirds of the new trash fee was going to overhead and raises. That reason? The “cell-phone tax.”
While Villaraigosa withheld how the trash-collection fee was being spent, he and Council President Eric Garcetti aggressively peddled a fat “cell-phone tax.” On Super Tuesday, L.A.’s liberal voter base approved the new tax, buying into Villaraigosa’s and Garcetti’s claim that City Hall needed it to pay for cops and firefighters. But the phone-tax fine print doesn’t say that. Nobody knows whether a penny of those hundreds of millions of dollars swill go to police or firefighters. (See “City Hall’s Black Hole,” L.A. Weekly, February 6.)
As his close ally, Chick is quick to note that the promise by Villaraigosa on the trash money — that it would be spent only on hiring cops — also never made the fine print adopted by the City Council and backed by Villaraigosa. So the trash fee can go to any “general public-safety expenses,” she says. Her audit stops short of accusing Villaraigosa of wrongdoing, concluding that 1,000 cops will be hired by mid-2010.
“I actually don’t see it as a shell game,” the controller says. “I don’t know how many people were under the impression that all of this money was going to hire additional police officers, but the verbiage was confusing.”
For his part, Villaraigosa’s spokesman, Matt Szabo, relies on the sort of misdirection that is a hallmark of the mayor’s reign, saying Villaraigosa is hiring cops as promised and “makes no apologies.” He can’t imagine why Chick is miffed. “Our office is an open book,” Szabo says.
Angry residents suggest that Villaraigosa, however, has reached new levels of obfuscation, not just about the continually rising trash fee and mystery phone tax, but about Villaraigosa’s tomelike $7 billion budget, and the myriad ways taxpayers’ monies are shifted around in the budget’s endless columns.
Paul Hatfield, treasurer of the Neighborhood Council Valley Village, a community watchdog group, is no fiscal slouch — he’s a CPA, has a master’s degree in business and is with an accounting-consulting company that caters to the entertainment industry.
“I’m very familiar with what it takes to manage a budget, to manage an accounting system, and what I see at the city just turns my stomach,” Hatfield says. “I really think the City Council and the mayor’s office just rely on people being ignorant and apathetic.
“They don’t have the system in place that allows for an efficient follow-up on how the money is spent. The reporting structure is not adequate. The right types of management reports are not reaching the right people," he adds.
Yet to City Hall, Hatfield is just another confused Angeleno who wrongly imagined that the trash hike was only for hiring cops. (And take note: The mayor and council plan to hike the trash fee again this fall, to a staggering $432 per household.)
Hatfield says Villaraigosa and the City Council duped the public much as Californians were hoodwinked into approving the California Lottery. In that brazen manipulation, as funds raised by the lottery poured in, the legislature promptly diverted existing funds away from classrooms.
Attorney Moore argues that under law, any “fee” has to be spent for that specific purpose. If trash-collection fees are used elsewhere, it’s a tax — and must be approved by voters. Moore says, “They don’t have the guts to come to us and say, ‘We want to raise your taxes.’ Instead, they pretend it’s only a fee.”
But Garcetti, Villaraigosa and others insist the trash hike isn’t a tax because trash pickup in L.A. had previously been “subsidized” by the general fund. The higher trash fee helps to pay the actual costs of pickup, they insist.
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“That’s a bait and switch. That’s what they do,” Moore says. Trash pickup in L.A. was hardly “subsidized,” he notes: The general fund is money from the taxpayers. “We were already paying for trash collection.”
L.A. now has the highest trash fees allowed by California law, and city leaders are urging voters to approve the highest local sales tax in California — if the issue is on the November ballot — to 8.75 percent. And Villaraigosa, Garcetti and others are promoting a “parcel tax” — sanitized jargon for “property tax” — which they promise will pay “only” for a mayoral program to keep kids out of gangs. But nobody knows how the new property tax would be spent.
The eroding credibility of Villaraigosa, Garcetti and others could hurt these causes in November. In the slow-burning San Fernando Valley, famed for paying far more in taxes than City Hall spends on it, the Valley Alliance of Neighborhood Councils, representing 29 organizations, put the police-hiring issue on its agenda right after Chick’s audit.
Lydia Mather, president of the Van Nuys Neighborhood Council, grows sarcastic: “You mean they lied? Are you surprised by that?” she says. “This is how L.A. functions. The purposeful mismanagement of the city of L.A. and its money is absolutely staggering to me. I’m almost at a loss for words. It makes me very, very sad.”