A FUNNY THING HAPPENED to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s plan for hiking trash fees — the proposal that soared through the Los Angeles City Council last week with remarkably little discussion. First it was billed as a way to hire 1,000 new cops. Then it wasn’t. Then it was again. Confused? Not surprising. The wordplay surrounding the fee increase was part of the city’s pirouette around Proposition 218, the highly restrictive anti-tax measure approved by voters in 1996.

Villaraigosa, mindful of his campaign promise to increase the size of the police department, offered the four-year garbage-fee increase as the cornerstone of his city budget in mid-April. When he first made the rounds to promote the higher trash fee, which would jump from $11 per month per homeowner this year to $28 in 2009, he handed out booklets portraying it as a critical step toward expanding the ranks of the LAPD. Council President Eric Garcetti and two of his colleagues responded by promising to create a “lock box” for the trash-fee revenue, to make sure it exclusively funds the city’s public-safety agenda.

But once the trash fee reached the council floor, Councilman Bernard Parks offered a more nuanced message. Parks, who heads the powerful budget committee, kicked off the seven-hour review of the city budget by insisting that the new trash-fee revenue — collected from roughly 500,000 homeowners and more than 180,000 renters in smaller apartment buildings — won’t go toward any specific purpose. Then, to make sure that everyone was paying attention, Parks repeated his words.

Parks said the council will ward off a lawsuit over Proposition 218, which prohibits tax hikes without a public vote but allows some fee increases, by agreeing to deposit the new trash-fee revenue in the overall municipal budget — which pays for streets, parks and other city services. “If we had earmarked it [for police] or put it in a special fund, we could almost be assured that we’d be sued for that,” Parks said. An hour later, Villaraigosa’s press team issued a slightly divergent statement on the unanimous vote. “Mayor Villaraigosa salutes council on historic vote to add 1,000 officers.”

Parks made his remarks on the south steps of City Hall, standing with his colleagues in front of an oversize banner titled “Wise Choices for a Safer City.” The sign was adorned with other leaden phrases, like “Open Government” and “Install Left-Turn Signals.” Always the droll humorist, Garcetti called it the “Mission Accomplished” banner, a sly reference to President George W. Bush’s ill-fated message on Iraq, delivered on an aircraft carrier.

And yet, the mission of hiring 1,000 officers won’t be accomplished any time soon. By July 1, 2007, halfway into the mayor’s term, the LAPD will have hired 308 additional officers — more than half of whom were approved when Villaraigosa was a councilman. By the time the mayor is sworn in for his second term in July 2009, the number of new cops will fall to just under 750. The LAPD will finally see its 1,000 officers by mid-2010, when the cost of paying for them will have outpaced the trash-fee revenue by nearly $55 million annually.

Garcetti and Councilwoman Wendy Greuel said they came as close as legally possible to creating a lock box for police by winning approval of a policy statement that designated the hiring of cops as the city’s top budget priority. One homeowner activist found that language unimpressive, saying it offers no guarantee that the council won’t siphon the money into other programs if the state economy goes into the tank and city revenue is scarce.

“I’m concerned that they didn’t put it into legally binding language,” said Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association. “They want the ability to take the money and use it for other purposes.”

Words were pivotal to the budget deliberations in other ways. Garcetti, for example, strenuously avoided calling the funding proposal a fee hike, pointing out that homeowners and renters in apartments with four units or fewer have long avoided the full cost of municipal trash collection. When the trash bills go up, those homeowners and renters will see a “reduced subsidy,” Garcetti explained.

Regardless of the nomenclature, the trash-fee proposal brought together some political opposites. While Close said the council ignored the financial needs of homeowners, Manuel Criollo of the Bus Riders Union voiced dismay that the revenue will go toward 1,000 cops. “What we need to talk about is how do we get 1,000 more librarians,” Criollo told the council. “How do we get 1,000 more park and recreation directors? How do we get 1,000 more buses?”

The council devoted 10 minutes to discussion of their new public-safety policy. A day later, council members spent three times as much time on a plan for tripling the fees charged to telecom companies that attach their cable to city-owned utility poles. With lobbyists watching closely, the council kicked the proposal back to the Department of Water and Power for more discussion.

VILLARAIGOSA AND PARKS rightly received much of the credit for making the budget process so smooth. But the council also may still be exhausted from last year’s emotionally draining, election-year free-for-all over the previous plan for adding 1,000 officers — former Mayor James Hahn’s proposal for a half-cent sales-tax hike. Hahn, who had immersed himself in the issue of public safety, only devised the last-ditch plan after he repeatedly failed to expand the size of the LAPD. His plan prompted a political bloodletting, with Villaraigosa denouncing the proposal on the council floor and preventing it from reaching the ballot by a single vote.

The debate was viscerally unpleasant and yet thrilling to watch, with council members and the public showing a rare emotional stake in the outcome. At one point, the son of a murdered Korean merchant fought back tears as he begged Councilman Jack Weiss to put the police tax on the ballot. At another, the fire chief broke into sobs while talking about how crime has hurt his boyhood neighborhood. Villaraigosa trounced Hahn by 20 percentage points a few months later, and it was hard not to wonder — could he have pulled off his landslide victory and won passage of a public-safety tax at the same time?

Council members still must approve an ordinance hiking the trash fees over the next three years. They also face a vote on a series of other fee hikes contained in the budget, including one to increase the cost of parking tickets by $5 and another to charge a $10 admission fee to patrons at the Watts Towers and Barnsdall Park starting in late 2007.

Close has no intention of showing up on the council floor for the vote on trash fees. And with the expansion of the LAPD debated for so many years, even the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association vouched for the city’s intentions. “They’re in so deep on this that they probably can be trusted” to hire the officers, said Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the taxpayer group. “If they don’t hire the officers, the extent of the embarrassment and political backlash will be significant.”

LA Weekly