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Not So Rosy, Jim

Consider the state of the city, Los Angeles, 2005. It is, said Mayor Jim Hahn on Monday, “safer, stronger and improving every day.” He made his speech during the week that local governments release their proposed budgets and begin a two-month-long debate about what they can do, and what they can’t do, over the next year. With the election only a month away, Hahn omitted a few critical details. Here’s a more complete picture of where the city stands: It is the best of times. It is the worst of times. It is a city worthy of Dickens. Crime is down. Violent crime is down 27 percent over the same quarter last year, 37 percent over two years ago. Gang crime is down 20 percent. The Los Angeles Police Department has regained its morale and its focus after the devastating Rampart scandal and a series of controversial shootings. A federal consent decree for police reform has removed horrendous flaws in the processes for investigating police shootings, disciplining officers and examining public complaints. Yet innocent people are murdered in their cars and outside their schools. Three people were shot dead in recent weeks on the Harbor Freeway in apparent random acts. Fifteen-year-old Deliesh Allen was gunned down on her way home from Locke High. Children walk to and from school in fear. There has been a spate of gang shootings in Northeast Los Angeles. So many people die each weekend from gang violence and domestic disputes that the names of most victims never appear in the newspaper. Police subdued a fleeing man by clubbing him with a flashlight. The LAPD is in the process of issuing new, less damaging flashlights. Police shot dead a 13-year-old boy by firing into the car he was driving toward officers. The department has revised its policy on shooting at moving cars. The populace is united in its demand for more police officers in the nation’s most underpoliced big city. County voters rejected a plan to pay for more officers with a higher sales tax. A minority of City Council members defeated a plan to ask city voters to raise their taxes to pay for more officers. The city faces a budget deficit of more than $300 million. City Council members encourage the mayor to submit a budget that provides for more officers. Council members warn the mayor that they will not abide a budget that calls for the elimination of city departments and programs. The county, which for years has released convicted criminals from jail early because there was not enough funding to keep inmates housed, is promising new hires and jail reopenings, made possible by soaring property values and corresponding property-tax revenues. The county still lacks sufficient beds for all its inmates, many of whom must sleep on the floor. The Sheriff’s Department remains unable to control a staph infection in county jails. Last year, a man in protective custody was murdered by an inmate left to roam the corridors unwatched. More than half the area’s public high school students drop out well before graduation. Schools are overcrowded. Educational opportunities are limited. Los Angeles City Council President Alex Padilla and school-board President Jose Huizar are pressing forward with plans for a commission to study whether the mayor of Los Angeles should have a role in running the school district. The plan has been described as a continuation of a discussion by the city’s Elected Charter Reform Commission, which spent nearly 20 hours in the late 1990s grappling with questions about textbooks, teacher pay, test scores, and other issues over which they had no control or authority. They ultimately entertained a motion to call for another commission to study schools, but rejected it. Construction of housing, including affordable housing, has increased at an astronomical rate after a decade of almost no construction. Economists estimate that a family of four must earn about $22 an hour to be able to afford a two-bedroom apartment. The minimum wage is $6.75 an hour. Freeways are becoming increasingly clogged as the population booms and as employees find themselves traveling greater distances between their jobs and housing they can afford. Employees are battling to retain health benefits and a living wage, to allow themselves a vacation day to be able to visit their kids’ school or to take them to a clinic, as employers are squeezing every penny they can get out of their workers in the face of global competition. Health care for the poor and middle-income residents without insurance is becoming more scarce, and less safe. Patients continue to die at Martin Luther King hospital, as county leaders vent their frustration on their own management team. Two other county hospitals remain open only by court order. County officials have urged the federal government to change the way it pays for the care of abused and neglected children, so that money will begin to come in for kids who are kept with loving family members instead of only for children who are removed to group homes or foster care. After more than a year, the federal government has so far indicated its preference for the current plan, and the county still has a financial incentive to grab children from their homes. The level of suburban outrage against illegal immigration from Mexico, and the tendency to blame Latino immigrants for the city’s ills, is growing, expressed in ever more heated terms on the airwaves of AM talk radio during slow-moving rush hours. The level of understanding on the part of policymakers and the political left about the power of the anti-immigrant resentment, and the relationship between the immigration issue and the failure of government institutions, remains low. More people than ever enjoy an open door into city government because of neighborhood councils, which are being taken more seriously as political bodies. Yet more than a dozen neighborhood councils are barely functional, spending their time on personal squabbles. The city’s contracting process is under investigation by federal and county criminal prosecutors. The city just settled a lawsuit against Fleishman-Hillard for millions of dollars charged to the city’s Department of Water and Power for apparently fraudulent billing. In the March election, just over a quarter of all city residents eligible to vote did so. The number is expected to be about the same for the May 17 mayoral runoff. The Dodgers are winning. The sun is shining. This is the real state of the city, Los Angeles, 2005.


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