You'd be surprised at what goes on just below the surface of Los Angeles City Hall, which is mired in years of fiscal cutbacks that at various times have decimated the hours at 73 public libraries, cut maintenance at parks, forced early retirements and now are seriously slowing down fire department emergency response times.
Take, for example, the full-service gas station across the street, in the underground City Hall East parking garage, complete with two fuel pumps and a car wash, responsible for serving what is widely known to city politicians, city officials and their aides as the "Executive Fleet."
The Executive Fleet is composed of more than 200 city-owned vehicles reserved for elected officials, their staffers and assorted department heads. The cars, which are supposed to be used strictly for city business, come with free maintenance — and free gas.
They're even exempt from paying for parking meters. This week, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa proposed unusually high new parking fines for city residents, of up to $100 for a routine offense. But if the City Council is ticketed by a presumptuous meter maid, the tickets are quietly tossed.
As of 2009, when then-Controller Laura Chick audited the Executive Fleet, the cost to taxpayers — including maintenance, fuel and depreciation — was $1.3 million a year.
Los Angeles City Council members say they're always on the job, and a city-owned car is more efficient than keeping track of mileage. But Chick, who refused to use her city car as a council member but did use one as city controller, disagrees.
"Was [the car] absolutely necessary? I don't think so," she says. "It was a perk that came with the job, along with the salary and other benefits." In fact, very few big cities in America pay for the vehicles, gas and maintenance of politicians and their aides.
The Executive Fleet is the tip of the iceberg. The city owns legions of vehicles and operates 141 tiny gas stations around L.A., most tucked inside police and fire stations.
According to Controller Wendy Greuel, the city spends $28.6 million a year on 13.8 million gallons of fuel. That's a good price per gallon, but also underscores just how many vehicles L.A. owns.
"There are an awful lot of those vehicles out there," says Ron Galperin, who's running for city controller in 2013. "The Fire Department has a special vehicle for making pancakes."
On April 20, Villaraigosa released his budget for 2012-13, a 433-page document that attempts to detail how City Hall will spend $7.2 billion and cut its deficit of at least $240 million. The budget provoked an irate reaction from union leaders over a proposal to eliminate 669 city jobs — and an equally irate reaction from L.A. Neighborhood Council members and budget hawks.
City Hall overspends by $27,378 an hour, 24/7. Many see the budget as a rather pathetic document that willingly ignores the scope of problems facing Los Angeles.
"The city's not growing, but our expenses are," says Stephen Box, a bicycle activist–turned–budget advocate who ran for City Council in 2011. "And you cannot get away from the fact that we're postponing the inevitable: infrastructure, police overtime and pension liabilities."
Villaraigosa proposes such spending as $1 million to fill 350,000 potholes — an impressive-sounding figure that most budget watchers say would barely make a dent in the City Council's and mayor's years of neglecting street infrastructure.
"It sounds like a great number," says Jay Handal, chairman of the Neighborhood Council Budget Advocates. "But our sidewalks are crumbling, our streets are crumbling. Filling 350,000 potholes — this is a joke."
Maintenance of public assets, in fact, is one of the few core city services that the Los Angeles City Council and the mayor must attend to. In tattered L.A., serious maintenance is widely seen as one of City Hall's great failures.
Handal points to the new LAPD headquarters, inartfully dubbed PAB, built in 2009.
The city coughed up $437 million for the beautiful new Police Administration Building — but last year failed to allocate money to tend to the beautiful plants in front.
"It's like investing in a tuxedo when you can't get a shave and a haircut," Box says.
In reaction to bad press, the new budget provides money to maintain the gardens. But other examples abound. The Fire Department trucks don't have basic GPS — a point made by former mayoral candidate Austin Beutner. In emergencies, firefighters unfurl paper maps or use their own smartphones.
To budget watchers, another brazen failure by the City Council and Villaraigosa is the city's pension and health care promises.
"The elephant in the room is pensions," says Jack Humphreville, publisher of the Recycler newspaper and the L.A. Watchdog blogger at CityWatch.com. Humphreville estimates the city is short by $10 billion to $20 billion, a veritable black hole of debt closer to the size of a state or federal disaster. If paid out, these liabilities could obliterate L.A.'s long-term fiscal health.
Huge deficits — like the one now being debated by the City Council Budget and Finance Committee, chaired by Councilman Paul Krekorian — face cities everywhere: In the 1990s and 2000s, when the economy was in better shape, elected officials voted to raise salaries and retirement benefits for city workers — moves that seemed affordable. But as city-paid health insurance premiums for city workers skyrocketed and revenues dipped, cities began staring into the abyss.
For his part, Villaraigosa is trying to eliminate just enough jobs to keep the lights on. A short-timer, his plan does nothing to address the crisis or such inexorably decaying assets as the street system.
"There is a concern that people will lose jobs" with the city, and the work would be done by contractors, says Shawn Simons, president of the North Area Development Neighborhood Council.
Many things the city does, like trash collection, could perhaps be done more efficiently by an outside contractor. But Villaraigosa and councilmembers including Eric Garcetti and Herb Wesson would rather keep the work inside City Hall than risk upsetting powerful public employee unions who help their re-election campaigns.
"They feel that this is the 'city family,' " Simons says. "And the 'city family' is more important than the 'city residents' who pay for the 'city family.' "
That "city family" includes four or five gas station attendants in the City Hall parking garage who dispense thousands of gallons of free gas to any politician or chief of staff with a car from the Executive Fleet. It's not the biggest controversy ever to hit Spring Street — providing free gas to affluent L.A. City Council members who are paid $178,789 a year, or city department heads who make $200,000 to $300,000.
But it's just the kind of thing that really enrages people.
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The "city family" gets that. When L.A. Weekly attempted to interview gas pump employees — to ask who gets free gas, for example — a supervisor insisted the newspaper get special permission. The Weekly was curtly escorted out of the city garage.
After seeking "special" permission, the Weekly was informed by Angela Sherick, assistant general manager of the Department of General Services, "All information pertaining to [the department] must come from the general manager. If you would like to submit questions, we will answer them and get them back to you."
When the Weekly submitted a few questions about the Executive Fleet, it was instructed to fill out a California Public Records Act request — the kind of legal paperwork most cities reserve for complex questions about complex issues.
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.