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Proposition S: City Hall's Black Hole

IT'S LESS THAN 12 HOURS before polls in Los Angeles will open, but a voter in the north end of the San Fernando Valley doesn't know what Proposition S is.

"The fireman one?" she asks, conjuring up the recent television ad campaign that featured Los Angeles Fire Chief Doug Barry hawking the measure.

Proposition S, a tax that many Angelenos became aware of through the Barry spot and its companion pitch — Police Chief William Bratton warning of serious police cutbacks if the measure didn't make it — was passed by Los Angeles voters by 66 percent to 34 percent.

So will the poster children for Prop. S be guaranteed a share of the tax they shilled for? No, says Los Angeles City Controller Laura Chick.

"I feel that the public was misled to believe that [the monies] were going to police and fire services," Chick told L.A. Weekly on Election Day. "This is tax money that has always gone to the general fund."

And, as Chick has learned, what happens in the general fund sometimes stays in the general fund. She says she's still trying to secure documentation from the last time the Los Angeles City Council upped trash-collection fees, purportedly to hire 1,000 new LAPD officers.

Chick says that six months ago, she asked both the office of Mayor Antonio Villaragosa and Karen Sisson, the city's chief administrative officer, to provide documentation showing that trash-collection fees had indeed been directly spent on 1,000 officers. Sisson promised, "'We can do that. Let me get back to you,'" recalls Chick.

According to Chick, she's still waiting. "There is no methodology by which I can track the money," she says. As for the audits that proponents of Proposition S promised as part of the measure, Chick says that, as written, the procedures audit how the tax is collected, not how it's spent.

According to a Web site maintained by the League of Women Voters, which reprinted Proposition S, the measure did offer an assuring-sounding audit, but the language appears to require only that the city abide by existing laws.

The Prop. S fine print states that: "The City shall annually verify that the Communications Users Tax imposed by this article has been properly collected and remitted in accordance with this article, and properly expended according to applicable law."

Big words, but nothing about paying for more police or firefighters. Chick's statements will come as no surprise to neighborhood councils citywide. Most councils did not take official positions on Proposition S. But a cross section of neighborhood-council representatives shared their concerns with the Weekly as individuals.

Though the proposition is sweeping in its reach, one of its most controversial elements was how it was sold — all those ads featuring Bratton and Barry.

"IT'S DECEIVING, the way that they're threatening to cut back on public safety. If we don't vote on this, you're going to be murdered, or your house is going to be burned down," noted Martha Cisneros of the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council. "I'm not buying it. I'm a little insulted actually — the way that they're putting it out there."

Margo Harris, a member of the Watts Neighborhood Council, echoed Cisneros. "It's a fear tactic," Harris said. "It's a way to make people act out of fear rather than really knowing."

Erick Aguirre of the North Hills West Neighborhood Council was unaware of Controller Chick's description of the general-fund black hole into which the tax will now vanish. But he nevertheless worried, "It may never go to policing. They can't guarantee that."

Though Villaraigosa, who championed the measure, and City Hall, which will benefit from it fiscally, won this round, it didn't improve their relations with some of the most active citizens. "They never went to the neighborhood councils," said Sid Gold of the Granada Hills North Neighborhood Council. "It's not a good way to get support from the grassroots."

Instead, many see it as a lesson in just how contemptuous City Hall is of its electorate. Ballot language described the new tax as a "decrease," since it was based on a tax still on the books; opponents criticized the mayor for not being more forthright and admitting that it was a new tax and thus an increase. Several neighborhood-council members said they did not believe the tax was necessary due to wasteful spending by the city.

However, others did feel the city's pain. "The 'waste' [such opponents] talk about are programs designed to improve living conditions in less affluent parts of Los Angeles and the lives of Los Angeles' less affluent residents," argued Jeff Jacobberger of the Mid-City West Community Council. "Not a single one of those people can suggest any cut in spending on any service that benefits their neighborhood."


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