Mon, May

Redefining Chutzpah: L.A. City Council's Salary Splurge Deepens Budget Strains Amid Growing Infrastructure Needs


GELFAND’S WORLD - The next time your City Council representative bemoans the fact that the city doesn't have enough money to solve your otherwise solvable problem, look him/her right in the eye and ask, "So why didn't you control city expenditures by voting against the ruinous salary increases for municipal employees back in April?" You may get a lot of mishmash about how salary increases are negotiated, but that will be subterfuge. The City Council has the power and authority to vote Yes or No, and they voted Yes unanimously. Here is the story: 

In April, the Los Angeles City Council voted to increase the salaries of unbadged city employees. They had already made a generous deal with the police. April's one year increase will be about 6 percent, with an overall raise over the next three to four years of 18% to 24%. There is actually a word for this kind of increase (which, by the way, has been going on for a long time now). That word -- which describes a proportional year-by-year increase -- is Exponential. 

You can find the whole story here

Yep, exponential is actually a correct use of this much-misused term. The problem with exponential growth of this order is that you have to find revenues to match the cost increases, or else you have to cut expenditures somewhere else. 

It's also a high rate of growth, whether it stays exponential or not. Put it this way: If the City Council tries to increase salaries by 5% every year, that would be exponential growth, and the City Council will eventually fail at maintaining those kinds of increases. 

So how can the mayor and the City Council deal with this built-in, structural deficit of its own making? One way is to try to find new revenues. The problem with this is that you can't very well increase bus fares and sales taxes in that same exponential manner, year after year. You can sometimes get away with one raise every five or ten years, but that's it. 

The other way is to cut spending in every place where you can get away with it. In practice, this means reducing city government employment. You do that by making sure that whenever a city employee quits or retires, you don't fill that job. There are a few exceptions, those being the jobs that are critical on a day-to-day basis. The people who run the electrical generation plants will be maintained in full. People who paint over graffiti may not get replaced. 

It is the latter approach that the City of Los Angeles always invokes. The unfilled jobs are going to remain unfilled, or they will be officially abolished. It doesn't really matter -- those extra transit police that we need on city buses and trains. Probably not going to see them. Not unless the city finds money somewhere else to pay those salaries. And in order to find that money, something has to give somewhere else. 

The effect is that the city will become a little seedier, a little less safe, a little less well managed. Repairs and basic maintenance will be left undone. Basic infrastructure such as storm drains, water mains, and electrical generators can all deteriorate faster. 

This could have been prevented, but your elected officials chose to take the politically safe way, by not irritating the municipal unions. The short-term solution when contracts come up is to give the unions what they want. The long-term result is a city that looks shabbier and is less safe than the surrounding cities which aren't quite so easily for sale at the governmental level. 

It was these thoughts that ran through my head the other evening as I watched City Council representative Monica Rodriguez as she complained about lack of security on our buses and trains. And it is true that the city (and the Metro) ought to cover the costs of putting more public safety officers on trains and buses. But guess what? Rodriguez voted for the salary increases. It is sad, if not exactly curious, that the news media didn't grill Rodriguez over her part in the city budget fiasco. 

The list also includes the mayor, who agreed to these salary increases and is now in the position of saying No to all the hiring increases that might bring some better standard of living to the people of Los Angeles. Street repairs? Sidewalk repairs? Emergency supplies? Appropriate funding for the Emergency Management Department? Let's watch the sausage get made as the City Council Budget Committee deals with all those hundreds of people and city agencies that are hoping for one little bit of additional funding. There will be a few token increases which will go to the items that generate public outrage (those transit police, maybe), but hundreds of other items will be kicked down the road. 

Those repairs to the San Pedro street that was partially destroyed in a landslide back in November 2011? Every year they tell us there isn't enough money. I guess we know why. 

There is an argument (or to put it more accurately, there once was an argument) that the city needed to pay more in order to maintain a skilled work force. You can get a feel for the city salary levels and decide for yourself if this is still a problem by checking out the "Indeed" page here. People who get jerked around by their employers in the private sector may disagree with the idea that the city needs to pay higher wages to a continually decreasing city work force. 

So the next time you attend a meeting with your elected officials or go to a neighborhood council meeting where a spokesman for the City Councilman sadly explains that there just isn't money to put in the crosswalk or fix the landslide, look her straight in the eye and say, "It is the councilman's fault that the city is now broke for the next four years." 

Things to Come 

Is it true that the city tells its Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) members not to talk to the media? Why yes, it is. 

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected].)