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Fri, Feb

White Paper Redux: Back to the Basics to Move Forward

NEIGHBORHOOD POLITICS-In January, the Budget Advocates identified homelessness, affordable housing, and climate change as issues that would require significant resources for the City to overcome.

Add to that the hard costs for addressing the pandemic, only some of which will be reimbursed by the state and federal governments. Add to those the loss in income to the City as a result of the shutdown, initially from tourism dollars but – as the pandemic stretches out – from all the economically sensitive taxes. 

And add to all that the economic blow to people without jobs and businesses without customers, and that their losses will all too soon be translated into costs to the City with evictions and a rapidly shrinking tax base. . . 

All this has become a perfect storm in an economy already teetering on the brink after the revelation that the rosy budget of last July was a billion dollar disaster because the Mayor, the Budget and Finance Committee, and the City Council “forgot” to include any projections for labor cost increases from the negotiations already nearing conclusion. 

Los Angeles has shrinking resources to address expanding needs. Meeting its current obligations to its residents will require more resources than it has. People expect a belt-tightening and that some of the immediate necessities may be funded with reserves, furloughs, and layoffs. But the needs of Angelenos must be put ahead of political considerations, especially as pay-to-play corruption scandals continue to envelop City Hall. 

And all decisions regarding these matters must be transparent. 

Allocation of resources 

The guidelines given to the City Departments last September in preparation for budgeting for this current fiscal year were both unrealistic and untenable: a demand for a 3% across-the-board cut for all departments with diverse missions and of unequal importance denotes an abdication of leadership. 

What was written in January in the Budget Advocates’ White Paper still holds true: 

While we do not have enough information or expertise to allocate the City’s finite resources, we recommend that the City increase funding for “backbone” departments that are essential to the operations of the City. These backbone departments include Personnel, Information Technology, and the Bureau of Engineering, all of which provide essential services to many City departments. 

If there were more transparency -- another action strongly recommended by the Budget Advocates as detailed earlier in this series of articles -- the Budget Advocates themselves, and others, might be in a better position to suggest budget cuts or operational efficiencies. 

Without ongoing access to the information necessary to make informed assessments, the Budget Advocates and all Angelenos do not have the tools to help the City find a path out of the present morass. 

Back to Basics 

In January: 

Despite record revenues, the City does not have a balanced budget. To the contrary, the City is anticipating budget deficits of $1.2 billion over the next four years. This is unacceptable. 

Six months and a ballooning budget later, the fact that the City has yet to place the tools in place to effectively assess and curtail the rapidly deteriorating fiscal outlook is a matter of grave concern. 

Placeholder budgets do not a plan make. Dancing to political tunes while essentially pursuing the same failed policies on the budget do not inspire confidence in the electorate. Nor, one would assume, in the financial institutions who rate city budgets. 

In its November 10 editorial, LA’s Riches-to-Rags Budget, the Los Angeles Times said, “When Garcetti became mayor in 2013, he pledged to get ‘Back to Basics.’ There should be nothing more basic than balancing the budget.” 

The Budget Advocates agree. 

More so than in January, more so than ever before, the Mayor and the City Council need to begin the process of regaining the trust and confidence of Angelenos. 

They can do this: 

  • by conducting open and transparent labor negotiations 
  • by committing to a policy that any new labor agreements will not result in deficits 
  • by adopting the recommendations laid out by the Budget Advocates in January as restated in its CityWatch article on July 23, 2020. 
  • by developing a strategy to eliminate the current budget deficit 
  • by instituting policies to eliminate the current Structural Deficit 
  • by establishing procedures to ensure structural deficits will no longer be allowed 
  • by restoring basic services for all Angelenos including adequate support for their own departments 
  • by initiating a viable plan to eliminate unfunded pension liabilities 
  • by addressing all deferred maintenance for City infrastructure, and 
  • by incorporating ongoing maintenance and improvements as a budgetary priority moving forward. 

With the pandemic, and the justifiable demands to move to a more equitable distribution of services and support between the wealthier enclaves and minority neighborhoods -- putting more stress on an already fragile fiscal situation -- our Mayor and City Council will be tempted to kick these costs down the road a little further. 

At least until they are out of office and can no longer be held accountable for the pain of this Intergenerational Theft. 

The practice of pushing the current debt out the doors of today’s City Hall and onto the backs of future generations must stop now or it will threaten the City’s viability, its credibility and even its ability to function as anything other than a company town for the public sector labor unions. 

Refusing to face reality is a recipe for disaster. 

Addressing the City’s budget crisis was perceived as a herculean process six months ago. It’s far worse now, but in the shakiness of the existing structure may lie the keys to systemic change and the opportunity for a better future. 

The people’s power is in their vote. 

But people have other tools at their command between elections: 

  • calling and petitioning their Councilmembers so the voices of the lobbyists are drowned out 
  • demanding adequate funding for the Ethics Commission and insisting corruption be swept out of City Hall and all levels of City employees and contractors 
  • refusing to be stonewalled by entrenched interests 
  • becoming visual as well as visible so not only social media but also the corporate media is covering their demands 
  • using the Neighborhood Council system and the Budget Advocates to amplify their voices 

We are the change we make. 

Demand budget reform.

 

(Liz Amsden is a member of the Budget Advocates, an elected, all volunteer, independent advisory body charged with making constructive recommendations to the Mayor and the City Council regarding the Budget, and to City Departments on ways to improve their operations, and with obtaining input, updating and educating all Angelenos on the City’s fiscal management.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.