Imagine how confused L.A.’s gang members must be right now. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa can’t stop talking about them, making them the centerpiece of his yearly State of the City Address, his $6 billion budget and even an angry face-to-face confrontation with the Los Angeles Times editorial board.
Yet look carefully at his budget proposal and it’s hard to tell if Villaraigosa has a new plan for gangs at all. Should gangs feel flattered, or slighted?
Villaraigosa noisily promised that this year’s city budget would devote $168 million to “gang-reduction and youth-development programs” — a shopping list that ranges from overtime pay for police officers to new job initiatives at Los Angeles International Airport. Simply dropping that number created some media magic for the mayor, making him the subject of such headlines as “Villaraigosa urges $168 million to steer L.A. youth away from gangs.”
As it turns out, nearly $150 million is money the city already spends on existing programs. And many of those initiatives are only tangentially related to the difficult work of eliminating street gangs, including such things as boat trips for fifth-graders in the Los Angeles Harbor to the ramped-up deployment of park rangers at the city’s biggest parks (are street thugs roaming Griffith Park and no one warned us?).
And that gets us to the most intriguing weapon in the mayor’s $168 millon anti-gang arsenal: water-saving urinals. As in, the self-cleaning kind that rely on — yipes! — suction instead of water. The mayor’s 41-page gang proposal promises to spend $1.2 million on the Water Demand Management Installation Program. Or to put it another way: the Department of Water and Power will teach the city’s youth to install water-efficient urinals and sprinklers in public parks.
The idea is, in a way, sheer genius. Gang members can finally profit from the high demand for low-flow urinals in struggling, low-income neighborhoods, then take that skill set citywide.
With 40,000 gang members and nearly 400 parks, the city could assign 100 gang members to each park. And if every park gets 10 new urinals, that’s one toilet for every 10 gang members to install in painstaking fashion. Don’t everyone line up at once!
Yet some council members voiced a few doubts that such a program is making a dent in the city’s battle against gangs — or, for that matter, that the program exists in any meaningful way. “I mean, install a couple of those and the kids might want to join a gang,” deadpanned Councilwoman Janice Hahn, whose district takes in the gang-plagued neighborhoods of Watts and Harbor Gateway.
The mayor’s people had no answers to Hahn’s questions about the urinal program during two recent meetings of the council’s Ad Hoc Committee on Gang Violence and Youth Development. Asked about it a third time on Friday, Deputy Mayor Arif Alikhan still had no idea how many jobs had been created under the program, or even how many toilets had been installed. “We’re in the process of getting that,” Alikhan told the L.A. Weekly.
While the mayor’s gang proposal describes the low-flow toilets as an existing city program, the DWP said it has not been set up yet. And a third agency, the Department of Recreation and Parks, said waterless urinals are being contemplated in exactly one place: the area near the Los Angeles River known as Taylor Yard. “But that would only be as an experiment, and we haven’t done that yet,” said Jane Kolb, the department’s spokeswoman. Well, then. Good thing it’s on the list!
Other programs in the mayor’s gang-reduction plan are baffling in their own way. The mayor tossed onto his anti-gang list $57,000 worth of boat tours — field trips for schoolchildren that are funded each year by the Port of Los Angeles. But will one trip to the harbor in the middle of the day prevent kids from joining gangs? Another $315,000 is basically free rent that has been provided by the harbor department for years to provide space for nearby youth groups — including room to store anti-graffiti paint.
Then there’s the city’s $9 million junior golf program, which transports kids to Griffith Park, where they get to play the links for $5. Part of the city for two decades, the junior golf program serves 350 children annually, according to the Department of Recreation and Parks. No doubt it’s a fine program, as it should be at a cost of nearly $26,000 per child.
Hahn, who has made no secret of her desire for a new tax to pay for gang programs, described the mayor’s $168 million as “fuzzy math,” taking in programs that do little to address gangs themselves. “That’s a problem for me, and that’s what gives us a bad rap,” she declared. “People are saying, ‘If you’re spending all that money, why do we have twice as many gangs?’”
But Alikhan portrayed the youth-development budget as a good start, calling it a coherent list that can be scrutinized in coming years by a new deputy mayor assigned exclusively to gang reduction. “I don’t think it’s fuzzy math. I think they’re accurate numbers that reflect the programs that provide opportunities for youth development in the city, as well as gang reduction,” he said.
The problem with the $168 million is that, even as a catch-all description of youth programs, it makes little sense. For example, Villaraigosa’s public-safety team threw in $2.5 million in expanded library hours. But library hours were expanded last year, not this year.
Should last year’s budget triumph be repackaged as a victory this year? And if so, why not count all the other library hours?
Forty percent of Villaraigosa’s anti-gang initiative will go toward the LAPD. And out of that total, $6.6 million represents police Chief William Bratton’s request for additional police overtime. But by lumping LAPD overtime in with city youth programs, Villaraigosa raised a red flag for Connie Rice, the civil rights attorney who urged council members to reject the LAPD’s request for extra overtime after meeting with Villaraigosa’s team. “I love Chief Bratton, but he should not get that money,” Rice told the council’s gang committee.
Rice released her own plan for addressing gangs earlier this year, calling for city officials to invest as much as $1 billion in “wrap-around” services for children in high-poverty neighborhoods. Villaraigosa echoed Rice’s report in his State of the City Address, by promising to team up with other law-enforcement agencies to focus on eight gang hot spots.
In reality, five of those eight partnerships were established between 1996 and 2003. What’s new is that the mayor’s budget will spread $3 million for prevention, intervention and re-entry programs across four of the eight hot spots.
So now Rice is in a bind. Team Villaraigosa artfully lifted the verbiage of her report — embracing the notion of intervention programs — while providing only the tiniest fraction of funding that she had sought. So in public, Rice alternates between praising Villaraigosa as a man who will one day be our nation’s president and criticizing elements of his gang plan, arguing that the new money is being spread too thinly to produce tangible results. Last week, for example, Rice said $3 million isn’t even enough for one gang hot spot, let alone four.
Of course, Rice always has another card to play — not as a city contractor, but as a lawyer. Speaking to the Police Commission in March, Rice pointed out that she could always bring another lawsuit against the city, one that demands that the city provide equal protection for low-income neighborhoods ravaged by gangs.
If successful, such a lawsuit could place yet another municipal program under court supervision. And at that point, that $168 million — phony or not — will look like peanuts.