Friday, February 29, 2008

The Discussion of the City's Budget Deficit Rages On

Sacred cows run wild in City Hall
By Kerry Cavanaugh, Daily News Staff Writer
Article Last Updated: 02/28/2008 11:06:46 PM PST

Faced with a budget shortfall of as much as $500 million next year, Los Angeles leaders say it's time to talk about their "sacred cows."

Councilwoman Wendy Greuel first used the term last month when she warned there would be no more sacred cows - that all programs and departments would be eyed for cuts.

Shortly after, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced his own warning about sacred cows. And the phrase popped up again earlier this week in an exchange between Councilman Dennis Zine and Chief Legislative Analyst Gerry Miller.

Zine: "We're looking at everything to save money, correct? What about the sacred cows? Have we discussed those?

Miller: "Which sacred cows are you referring to?"

Indeed, city leaders each seem to have their own ideas on what constitutes sacred cows - programs deemed untouchable for political reasons. The phrase stems from the Hindu belief that cows are sacred and therefore should not be killed.

And so far, the City Council has been hesitant to bring out the knives. After a four-hour hearing to begin trimming the budget, the council restored spending on graffiti removal and community beautification without making equal cuts elsewhere - actually increasing the deficit by about $423,000, according to the Mayor's Office.

That frustrates, but doesn't really surprise, some critics of the city's spending habits.
"The only way they're going to make progress is to be ruthless," said Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

"They need to think of the interests we have in common rather than special interests."

Proposed cuts opposed

Zine took aim at the Board of Public Works Commission, whose five members each make more than $115,000 a year.

"We have a police commission, a recreation and parks commission, commissions overseeing the harbor, airport and the Department of Water and Power, and none of the commissioners get paid," Zine said.

Former Mayor Richard Riordan wanted to cut the paid commission, but the idea was nixed by the City Council and Charter Reform Commission.

Shortly after Zine called the commission a sacred cow worth corralling, commission President Cynthia Ruiz paid him a visit to reiterate the commission's role in providing an unbiased eye over contracts worth a half-billion dollars.

"I understand that in tough budget times, that everything has to be looked at," Ruiz said. "I'm fully confident that once it's reviewed they'll see our value."

Other frequently targeted, but rarely acted upon, sacred cows include the Commission on Children, Youth and their Families; the Commission on the Status of Women; the Department of Aging; and the Department on Disability - with budgets totaling $7.6million this year.

But whenever the city has considered cutting or consolidating these agencies, there have been protests.

"There are sensitivities and constituencies that cause people to come in and say, `Do you really want to do this?"' said Councilman Bernard Parks.

What's Parks' own sacred cow?

"Just Council District 8," quipped the 8th District councilman.

Other sacred cows include millions of dollars in special-event fees that City Council members waive to support community groups and, sometimes, commercial ventures.

Essential services

Officials have suggested a moratorium on such fee waivers to save money, but that idea has hit a wall with the council.

"Everything is on the table and everyone must contribute to the solution," said Matt Szabo, spokesman for Villaraigosa.

"And it starts by getting rid of luxuries like city cars for staff and ending the arbitrary practice of fee waivers for local events."

But one person's sacred cow is another person's essential city service.

Take the Los Angeles Police Department.

Several city leaders have said they can't balance the budget without trimming the LAPD's $1.2billion budget. But after a very public campaign to add 1,000 officers to the police force, few city leaders want to advocate cuts.

"When any other department is asked to cut, people don't seem to get as upset," said Councilman Tony Cardenas.

"All you need to say is `cutbacks to LAPD,' and everyone gets alarmed from Brentwood to South Los Angeles."

He cited a battle Tuesday over redeploying 22 police officers that the LAPD insists are needed at Los Angeles International Airport - despite LAX's insistence that the officers are not needed to supplement airport police.

But Villaraigosa and Councilman Jack Weiss said policing is the city's top priority, so the LAPD budget should be off the table - even if that means cutting other city services.

"Cops are first and let the chips fall where they may," Weiss said.

Greuel said she sees plenty of sacred cows, and has sought to redirect money from franchise fees and property sales out of individual council members' accounts and into the general fund.

So far, her colleagues aren't ready to slaughter that sacred cow.

Still, one silver lining to a $500million deficit is that the council and mayor would have political cover to cut spending on nonessential city services that have been added to the budget over the years.

"It's all about timing," Greuel said. "You have to seize these opportunities to go after the sacred cows."

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