ACCORDING TO LIZ - Budgets aren’t sexy. Says who?
Budgets can be boring and scary. But they can also be creative, progressive, regressive or inspirational.
Here in Los Angeles, our City Council presides over a budget that will exceed $13 billion for the fiscal year 2023-24, an increase of 11% over last year.
It covers the Mayor’s war on homelessness, police and fire services, and improvements to the City’s infrastructure.
At a Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition (LANCC) meeting, Mayor Karen Bass spoke candidly about her new position and the challenges she is facing. There are seven thousand City vacancies and the loss of personnel in the Personnel Department is making it difficult to fill them.
Her priorities – homelessness, public safety, and infrastructure – all need people to put them in place. Both looking outside the box and aligning the City’s approaches with those of her counterparts at the federal, state, and county level will help fuse permanent solutions to problems rather than lurching from stop-gap measure to temporary patch.
Acknowledging there’s a significant learning curve, she is still willing to think big to solve the problems Los Angeles is facing. While some strategies may not work, others will. Some take the City into areas that are new. Her Office of Community Safety is focusing on crime but also violence prevention, non-armed intervention, and beefed-up mental health and substance abuse programs.
The Mayor is looking at Charter change with citizen involvement directly and through the Neighborhood Councils to streamline what has become too complicated, repair shredded social safety nets, increase accountability, and eradicate corruption.
To do this, she has hired an ethics lawyer and will continue to double down on ethics issues across the City, she has a director of Neighborhood services in place and is building a new team, a new set of deputy mayors to address present day City needs.
At that point, she and her team had produced their budget and put it in the hands of the Budget, Finance and Innovation Committee before it headed to a City Council vote.
For many years the finagling and fine-tuning took place behind closed doors and what passed was an edict by the fifteen around the horseshoe with little to no transparency.
Enter the Budget Advocates.
The Budget Advocates are an all-volunteer, independent advisory body dating back to the inception of, and elected through, the City’s Neighborhood Council system. They are charged with making constructive recommendations on the City's budget to the Mayor and City Council, as well as inspiring City Departments to improve their operations.
They solicit stakeholder input on City services, inform Angelenos on the City's fiscal management, and report on the City's progress, meet annually with department heads to better understand their challenges, encourage the City to allocate its resources to improve services and quality of life for all Angelenos, and bring transparency to the City's budget process.
As in previous years, the Budget Advocates weighed in at a session of the Budget and Finance Committee hearings in May with concrete suggestions for spending the City’s money more efficiently and producing more satisfactory results.
Many of the problems, faced both internally by the City bureaucracy and by Angelenos trying to obtain services, stem from the fact that, in the wake of the pandemic fiscal contractions, the Los Angeles government suffers from over 20% in vacancies across its many departments.
The Budget Advocates called for procedures and policies to expedite hiring and increase staff retention including modernizing and streamlining the currently cumbersome Civil Service process, making job descriptions appropriate to departments’ needs, and salaries more competitive.
They called on the City to prioritize information technology (IT) investment and improvements.
They called for greater funding for the Emergency Management Department where doubling their budget would cost a dollar per resident per year, a minuscule investment in a department that could prevent losses of millions of dollars in the event of earthquakes, wildfires, floods, civil insurrection and more.
They called for more accountability by individual departments for their employees’ behavior rather than relying on the City Attorney to make liability payouts. The underfunded Ethics Commission needs the City’s support in publicizing all such incidents to help prevent reoccurrences.
They also called for the City to revamp the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment aka DONE which, rather than empowering, has become an impediment for the Neighborhood Council system effectively advising the City on the needs and desires of the communities that make up Los Angeles.
The City – which has a huge budget in a State that has the fifth largest economy in the world – has suffered budget challenges for decades.
And now it is a City in search of its residents with lack of affordable housing, the brain drain from businesses taking jobs to other states, and the twin scourges of homelessness and escalating violence driving an exodus of its tax base.
What to do?
If any group may have an answer, it’s the Budget Advocates.
Learn a little, make connections with those in your community who share your fiscal interests. Look at attending Neighborhood Council meetings, perhaps join a committee with the goal of contributing in that sphere. It will stand you in good stead if you want to run for a seat on your Neighborhood Council 18-22 months from now.
If your interest is in how the City spends tax dollars, consider going to some Budget Advocates meetings and, if the spirit moves you, ask your Neighborhood Council to appoint you as a Budget Representative – you do not need to be a board member for this.
If you get so lucky, you can then run to be a Budget Advocate yourself – there are currently openings in a number of areas across the City. You do not need an accounting degree or fiscal experience, just common sense, a desire to help, and the passion to make Los Angeles more responsive to the needs of its residents.
Knowledge is power.
Scheduled speakers include Mayor Karen Bass and Council President Paul Krekorian along with others voices, both new and returning, on the City’s financial matters.
Whether you just want to get a little insight on how the City spends your tax dollars without getting a degree in accounting or are seeking an opportunity to make a difference for your community, plan on attending this free online event by the Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Budget Advocates.
(Liz Amsden is a contributor to CityWatch and an activist from Northeast Los Angeles with opinions on much of what goes on in our lives. She has written extensively on the City's budget and services as well as her many other interests and passions. In her real life she works on budgets for film and television where fiction can rarely be as strange as the truth of living in today's world.)