Our Public Investment is Just That: Public!

ALPERN AT LARGE-It's not hard to figure out how to best spend the public's/taxpayer money--although it does appear that it's hard for our electeds to remember it's not THEIR money.  Our American society is actually quite generous and quite eager to support great projects through both volunteer work and their own hard-earned money--but the people hate to be duped, and they hate to be treated like a free ATM machine.

As my family visits one delightful national park/monument after another, most recently the Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado, I am constantly reminded of the excellent things our taxpaying and volunteer largesse can do to enhance the lives of current and future Americans. 

However, I am also reminded of the obnoxious way our local, state and national electeds can take advantage of the key issues of our day, such as widening economic disparity, environmental issues, and a moribund economy, to make Americans feel like they OWE more of their time and money to a top-down government that forgets that whole "of the people, by the people, and for the people" mantra that is the cornerstone of good government. 

This mantra was part of the Gettysburg address, a truly legendary American speech by a man who was reviled during his presidency but now revered as one of the greatest presidents in our history. The concept of equality and representation of all Americans is one that is still fought, and will certainly continue to be fought, in that American politicians (like politicians from all nations) need constant reminding of who is the real boss in our society. 

The real boss in our society, of course, is US, and our money and volunteer work continues to be taken for granted--sometimes insidiously, and sometimes brazenly--by elected officials and a public sector who all-too-often slams through a series of health, retirement and pension benefits that is by far more generous than that which the taxpaying private sector enjoys, and which raids from the critical government services that our society needs so much. 

Our society has paid for these government services, and is happy to pay for more projects and services if the money is spent right.  Hence our L.A. county taxpayer voting base passed Measure R, which is funding rail, freeway and other transportation projects under very public accountability...and it might pass "Measure R-2" in order to pass other freeway projects and create a rail infrastructure that includes airport-rail connections. 

On the other hand, the City (very different from the County) of Los Angeles is still reeling from years, if not decades, of poor and irresponsible spending that has now shredded the credibility of Downtown in the eyes of City voters and taxpayers.  City Councilmembers Englander and Buscaino have now dropped their effort to place a half-cent sales tax to fix our roads, sidewalks and other infrastructure on this November's ballot . 

Does the infrastructure (road, sidewalk, alley, sewer, water, electricity, park system, etc.) of the City of Los Angeles need repair and upkeep?  Frightfully, YES!  Has the City been allotting its budget for that repair and upkeep over the last few decades?  Frightfully, NO!  That money went...elsewhere! 

At this point, I need to fend off the invariable criticisms of those who either misread my statements, or want to stuff words into my mouth that I would never say, because I am the proud son of a retired City of LA civil engineer--a true "straight arrow" who is responsible for much of the sanitation, gas, water and other infrastructure in our City (By the way, Dad--Happy Father's Day!). 

When my father retired a few decades ago, the pension funds in our City were self-sustaining and the benefits both modest and sustainable--and his job was promptly changed to a politically-appointed position, thereby ending his valuable role in being able to speak truth to power (like the Mayor and City Council) when they needed to learn that water, sewage and other infrastructure had to ALWAYS be taken into consideration. 

So when I proclaim (as have other CityWatch contributors like Jack Humphreville and Paul Hatfield) that the City has misspent its road, sidewalk and other infrastructure maintenance funds, and has diverted too much of City revenue to City workers and political pet projects in unsustainable power/fiscal/tax grabs, the last thing I'd do is throw my own dedicated and hard-working father (and his respected co-workers) under the proverbial bus. 

I regularly communicate with equally-dedicated and hard-working officials from City workers who have made it clear to me that if THEY were empowered to speak truth to power, and if THEY were given a role in our City's budgeting and hiring process, many of our structural/operational problems would go away (and probably a few of them would easily earn a long-overdue raise!). 

So it's easy to dismiss my complaints and concerns about how we misspend our money, or those of my fellow CityWatch columnist Jack Humphreville who constantly and successfully (and with strong grassroots support!) berates the City Council in their financial mismanagement of the City's coffers, or those from other Neighborhood Council leaders (volunteer, remember?) when we all decry mismanagement and cronyism at City Hall. 

Yet our collective goal is NOT to habitually and blindly smack around City Hall elected, appointed or hired City officials--it's to ensure that the taxpaying citizens of Los Angeles get their money's worth, and to ensure that City voters and residents get represented, not ruled, by City Hall. 

So here are a few ideas to make our public investment more...public: 

1) As with the legally- and fiscally-troubled California High Speed Rail (CAHSR) project, any and all transportation/infrastructure plans must be transparent and make sense.  Measure R still has credibility in the eyes of the majority of voters, according to all ongoing polls, but the CAHSR project does NOT, and future efforts must adhere more to the successes of Measure R. 

Similarly, the road/sidewalk tax effort of the LA City Council failed because of a lack of accountability and credibility for which City hall suffers.  City leaders who are used to the Sacramento, top-down approach to government must change their working paradigms, and work with City Controller Ron Galperin to find out how already-existing funds can be used for proper dedication to our infrastructure. 

2) There ARE some goodies with the CAHSR project that will allow improved operations at Union Station, including run-through tracks to benefit our often under-appreciated Metrolink network, and the taxpaying public shouldn't have to accept the bad in order to get the good.   

Any new or existing City, County or State measure can and must be rewritten to retain the support and credibility of the taxpayers/voters. 

3) A countywide "Measure R-2" is being evaluated and studied (is it possible to name this future measure as such...R2?) for a possible 2016 vote.  Dismissing outlying areas of the county, such as the San Gabriel Valley, the South Bay and the Southeast Cities, will kill this measure's chance of being enacted.   

A Foothill Gold Line extension to Claremont, a South Bay Green Line extension, and a host of Southeast LA County freeway improvements must be taken as seriously as parts of a potential Measure R-2 as is a connection of our Metro Rail system to LAX ... because the County's suburban residents pay taxes, too. 

And stop using the otherwise-venerable causes of transit-oriented development to benefit "connected" developers at the expense of the voters who are paying for our transit initiatives--we didn't vote for more mobility options to make our congestion and environment WORSE.  SOME development is NOT the same as OVER-development. 

4) If the City wants to address income inequality, which is (contrary to the confusion and misinformation of many voters) a concern to both Wall Street and Main Street, then merely raising the minimum wage and chasing businesses out of the City won't get things done.   

Instead of political theater, closer cooperation with our City's employers to enhance worker opportunities for advancement and better pay/benefits is in order.  For example, how about a dollar-for-dollar exchange of business taxes for employee pay raises, or free transit passes for workers, or finding ways to make health insurance/care cheaper for small businesses and their employees? 

5) Stop the attack on businesses and commuters who rely on their cars to work, shop and transport families to their necessary destinations, and promote the teamwork that Mayor Garcetti and grassroots leaders are doing by promoting the Los Angeles Parking Freedom Initiative. 

Parking tickets shouldn't be so confiscatory and punitive, and a lack of parking shouldn't be established in order to gain more revenue for parking tickets and the City's general budget.  More parking, bus, and mobility/access options are needed for funding by parking meter revenues in order to enhance our commercial thoroughfares and general mobility for Angelenos and far-flung working commuters in the City of the Angels. 

6) If the Mayor and the County Board of Supervisors want to really, REALLY confront the problems facing our veterans and our VA hospitals (which ARE publicly-funded), the need to rethink who works at these facilities must be addressed.  

Think about the longstanding situation at King/Drew Medical Center, and what was needed to address that problem. Any physician trained at a VA medical center will corroborate the common knowledge that there are both heroes and villains who work at our VA hospitals. 

The heroes deserve to get a raise, and the villains (who view the VA hospital venue as a nice way to work 9-3 and who are habitually "carried" by their fellow workers, who are forced to do their job as well as their own and without extra pay) deserve to be fired.  Want to fix that?  Start hiring/replacing workers as needed with veterans, or with veterans' family members, who will do the job out of love, dedication and respect for veterans.  

7) Create a new City measure/effort to fund and establish new and innovative ways to enhance both revenue and more locations for our parks, and to do so with the creation of a partnership utilizing the open spaces at our LAUSD schools.  Our schools should be available as open/free space during our evenings and weekends for the taxpayers who funded them, and who deserve more recreational open space and a better quality of life. 

Opportunities are abundant to use existing, and perhaps future, taxpayer and voter largesse (either in taxes, bond measures and/or volunteer efforts) for the benefit of our society.  Whether it's our California national parks, or more distant national parks like Great Sand Dunes, I highly recommend every reader experience what the American taxpayers (and affiliated volunteer organizations) have created. 

But our City infrastructure, as with our City government, should NOT be built on a great pile of sand, but rather a reliable and solid operational structure that ensures better cooperation and success between our City's residents and its leaders.  Neighborhood leaders should not, and need not, always have to enjoin an exhausting struggle to fight City Hall.


(Ken Alpern is a Westside Village Zone Director and Board member of the Mar Vista Community Council (MVCCT), previously co-chaired its Planning and Outreach Committees, and currently is Co-Chair of its MVCC Transportation/Infrastructure Committee.  He is co-chair of the CD11 Transportation Advisory Committee and chairs the nonprofit Transit Coalition, and can be reached at Alpern@MarVista.org .   He also does regular commentary on the Mark Isler Radio Show on AM 870, and co-chairs the grassroots Friends of the Green Line at www.fogl.us .   The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Alpern.)







Vol 12 Issue 48

Pub: June 13, 2014