IF MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA finds a way to hire 1,000 new cops, plant 1 million new trees or expand after-school programs, he will very likely have Karen Sisson to thank. Sisson is — for lack of a more accurate title — Villaraigosa’s budget czar, the one making sense of the city’s financial woes and how to solve them.
Sisson, who stays very much behind the scenes, wowed neighborhood council leaders last year with her pithy, one-woman primer on the budget, giving them a frank yet comprehensible message about what the city can and cannot afford. A veteran of municipal finance, Sisson prepared the $6.4 billion budget that Villaraigosa unveiled on April 20, and she’ll be in the hot seat as he tries to get his budget passed by the City Council.
The daughter of school teachers, Sisson received her bachelor’s degree in international relations and spent nearly three years traveling across Asia training budding bankers from Taipei, Manila and Jakarta in the world of finance. More recently, Sisson spent nine years overseeing the finances at Los Angeles International Airport, helping that agency weather the financial storm caused by the September 11 terrorist attacks.
For much of the past year, Sisson had the mayor’s ear as he worked to eliminate a $271 million budget shortfall. Now she hopes to spend the summer searching for unneeded city expenses.
“It’s tedious. It’s not sexy,” she says. “But it’s potentially where you find the money to deliver more money for streets, more trees for the parks.”