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LA Watchdog

LA’s ‘Secret’ Budget Meetings: The Questions No One is Willing to Ask

LA WATCHDOG--While the combined budgets for the City Council and the Mayor are projected to be $100 million next year, will Paul Krekorian, the Chair of the City Council’s Budget and Finance Committee, conduct an open and transparent discussion of the individual line items of each budget so that Angelenos will have a better understanding as to how and where their money is being spent? 

For example, there has not been an open and transparent discussion about the Councilmembers’ discretionary funds that are reputed to haul in over $20 million a year, money that could be used to repair our streets or fund a portion of the City’s homeless initiative.  

Sources of cash for these slush funds include the Street Furniture Fund (advertising revenues from bus shelters), Oil Pipeline Franchise Fees, the Real Property Trust Fund (50% of the sale of surplus property in a Council District), and AB 1290 Funds (tax increment funds associated with the dissolution of the corrupt Community Redevelopment Agency).  There are also fees from Lopez Canyon Landfill, Sunshine Canyon Landfill, and the Central LA Recycling and Transfer Station that never see the light of day. 

Where the discretionary cash goes is also not very transparent unless you are willing to hire a team of forensic accountants.  Reportedly, Councilmembers use a portion of these slush funds to fund members of their bloated staffs. 

There are discrepancies between the number of positions listed in the budget for the Mayor (94) and the City Council (108) and internal rosters, telephone directories, and web sites which indicate over 450 employees.  Naturally, this gives rise to the question of how are all these staffers being paid and what is the source of the cash to fund the extra salaries, pensions, and benefits.  

This headcount does not include numerous City employees who are on “loan” to the Mayor’s office to work on special projects and initiatives or the many employees throughout the City who are on call to answer the many time consuming inquiries from the offices of the Mayor and the Councilmembers. 

The Mayor’s budget also includes a line item of $36 million for Non-Departmental Allocations that comprises two-thirds of his $54 million fully loaded budget.  But there are no details about how and where this money will be spent in the over 1,700 pages covering the budget.  

Nor is there any information about how last year’s $38 million of Non-Departmental Allocations was disbursed.  

The City Council has also budgeted $6 million for Non-Departmental Allocations.  While this represents only an eighth of its $47 million budget, again there is no information on where this cash is going.  

Tellingly, the budgets for the City Council and the Mayor were the only departments that did not have the Supporting Data that outlines the distribution of 2016-17 total cost of their programs.  This includes pensions and human resource benefits (equal 30% of total salaries for the combined departments) and other departmental expenses.  

The unwillingness of the Budget and Finance Committee to demand transparency from the Mayor and its own City Council is justification as to why the City should implement the recommendation of the LA 2020 Commission to establish an independent Office of Transparency and Accountability to oversee the finances of our cash strapped City, whose elected officials appear to be allergic to the sunshine demanded by skeptical Angelenos. 

●●●

The Budget and Finance Committee should also consider another recommendation of the LA 2020 Commission by creating a Committee on Retirement Security to review and analyze the City’s two underfunded pension plans, especially in light of the projected $101 million deficit in 2020 caused by an increase of over $180 million in pension contributions, wiping out the $68 million surplus that was projected last year. 

 

(Jack Humphreville writes LA Watchdog for CityWatch. He is the President of the DWP Advocacy Committee and a member of the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council.  Humphreville is the publisher of the Recycler Classifieds -- www.recycler.com. He can be reached at:  [email protected].)

-cw

 

Like a Bad Neighbor, LA Rec & Parks is There!

LA WATCHDOG--Ever since Mayor Villaraigosa and the Eric Garcetti led City Council eviscerated the budget of our Department of Recreation and Parks in 2010 to help balance the City’s out of control budget, Rec & Parks has been on a mad dash for cash, willing to sell its soul for a few extra bucks, the hell with the neighboring communities.  

Under the new “full cost recovery” program that targeted the Recreation and Parks budget, City Hall slammed the Department with $38 million in chargebacks, consisting primarily of costs for water and power ($16 million) and General Fund expenses ($17.5 million).  This ding represented more than a quarter of the Department’s appropriation in the 2011 budget.   

Despite the healthy increase in City revenues, this policy has only gotten worse as chargebacks for the upcoming year have ballooned to $60 million, representing more than a third of its General Fund revenue. 

As a result, our parks are in disrepair and its programs gutted as the Department has eliminated more than a quarter of its worker bees. 

While the commercialization of our parks is understandable, it has not been well received by Angelenos who believe our parks should be free of billboards, signage, and other forms of intrusive advertising and corporate sponsorship.  And this opposition has only been fueled by the ham handed Department managers and Commissioners who have been less than transparent with the public, especially with those that live in close proximity to the parks. 

A prime example is the near riot by Hollywood residents over a plan to commercialize Runyon Park by allowing Pink + Dolphin, a streetwear company, to place its controversial logo on a newly constructed basketball court in exchange for $250,000.  This situation was further aggravated by Rec & Parks failure to engage the Hollywood community. 

As a result of the furious backlash, Councilmember David Ryu called a halt to this deal, at least for the time being.   

We are also seeing opposition to AngelFest, a new three day “family friendly music, food and cultural festival” that may be held in October in the Sepulveda Basin Recreation Area.  And while the Department will take in an estimated $1 million over the next three years that can be reinvested in the local parks, the Department failed to engage the environmental and conservation communities who are concerned about the adverse impact on the park and its wildlife. 

The Department also stirred up a hornet’s nest when it bungled the proposal to have Live Nation and Anschutz Entertainment replace Nederlander as the operator of the Greek Theatre in Griffin Park.  As a result, Rec & Parks will “self-manage” the venue, a scary thought given the City’s lack of management expertise and the need for the cash strapped City to invest $20 to $40 million to upgrade the aging venue. 

We are also seeing controversies where the residents of Beachwood Canyon, Hollywood Land, Lake Hollywood Estates, and the Hollywood Dells are in open revolt against the Department because of the traffic and safety issues resulting from tourists flocking to see the Hollywood sign. 

We also have issues involving Elysian Park and Councilman Gil Cedillo’s efforts to raid a $12.5 million fund set up by the Department of Water and Power to mitigate the impact of a covered reservoir. 

Now is the time to reform our Department of Recreation and Parks. 

The first step is to establish a better relationship with the public.  This would include a Memorandum of Understanding with the Neighborhood Councils similar to the successful arrangement with the Department of Water and Power.  This would also involve considerable outreach to the public, something the Department has not done with any consistency. 

At the same time, the Department needs to develop a long range operational and financial plan that meets the goals of all Angelenos. 

Once the Department gains the trust and confidence of the public, the City should place a measure on the ballot that would increase the charter mandated appropriation by $75 to $100 million over a four year period.  At the same time, the Department would assume responsibility for all its direct and indirect expenses. 

Importantly, this is not be a new tax, but would require the City to allocate scarce funds to the Department. 

This is similar to Measure L, the March 2011 charter amendment that was approved by 63% of the voters that increased the mandated funding for the Library Department by over 70%. 

The Department of Recreation and Parks has been the center of increasing controversy, in part because of its lack of funding and the failure of its management to develop an open and transparent relationship with the public. 

But now is the time for the Department to develop and implement its good neighbor plan. 

(Jack Humphreville writes LA Watchdog for CityWatch. He is the President of the DWP Advocacy Committee and a member of the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council.  Humphreville is the publisher of the Recycler Classifieds -- www.recycler.com. He can be reached at:  [email protected].)

-cw 

What the Mayor Neglected to Tell Us about the LA’s New City Budget

LA WATDHDOG--On Wednesday, Mayor Eric Garcetti characterized his $5.6 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year as a “strong spending plan that is balanced and responsible, with a record investment of $138 million to tackle the City’s homelessness crisis.” 

But “spending” is the operative word as the cumulative deficit over the next four years is expected to exceed $300 million as the growth in expenditures exceeds that of revenues.  This compares to last year’s projection of a four year cumulative deficit of “only” $37 million. 

This change in fortune is exhibited by comparing the outcomes for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2020.  The current April 2016 outlook shows red ink of $101 million in 2020, up from last year’s projected surplus of $68 million, a swing of $169 million.  Underlying this differential is a less than transparent $263 million bump in expenditures caused by increases in pension contributions, employee compensation, and human resource benefits, offset by a modest $95 million growth in revenues. 

Unfortunately, these projections do not take into account the money that is needed to repair and maintain our streets, our parks and trees, the City’s building and facilities, and the rest of our deteriorating infrastructure. 

The City is also short changing its two seriously underfunded pension plans by more than $400 million a year by relying on the bogus assumption that its two pension plans will earn 7½% on its investment portfolio.  This compares to an investment rate assumption of 6½% that is recommended by Warren Buffet and other savvy investors.  

Garcetti’s budget did not include a long term financial plan to attack the homeless crisis, but indicated that he will propose a new tax to provide a dedicated source of funding for this initiative.  

But before the Mayor and the City Council place a homeless tax measure on the ballot for our approval or rejection, they need to develop a comprehensive game plan where the City collaborates with the County and takes into consideration the County’s efforts to fund its homeless initiative.  It will also need to establish a management team with clear lines of authority to offset the interference by grandstanding politicians.  

The City should also take into consideration an array of other taxes that are being considered by both the County and the City.  These include the November ballot measure to increase our sales tax by a half cent to fund Metro’s transportation projects, a County parcel tax to fund its parks, a County storm water tax, and a City tax to finance the repair and maintenance of our streets and sidewalks.  

Along with the recent increase in our taxes associated with the Department of Water and Power rate increase, these hits to our wallets would be the equivalent of a three cent increase in our sales tax to 12% or a 33% increase in our property taxes.  These do not include any new State taxes.    

Ouch! 

The Budget and Finance Committee will begin its public consideration of the Mayor’s budget on Wednesday, April 27.  This will involve discussions with all of the General Managers of the City’s departments.  But the Budget and Finance Committee would be wise to seriously consider the recommendations of LA 2020 Commission involving the establishment of an Office of Transparency and Accountability to oversee the finances of our cash strapped City, the creation of a Committee on Retirement Security to review the City’s pension plans that are over $13 billion in the red, and the annual preparation of a three year budget so that we and the Council members have a better understanding of the long term consequences of City policies and legislation. 

Unfortunately, Budget and Finance Chair Paul Krekorian and City Council President Herb Wesson will once again refuse to consider the excellent, common sense recommendations of the LA 2020 Commission.  Nor will they consider cutting back on the future expenses that contribute to the projected budget deficit of $101 million in 2020. 

But then again, if the City Council does not get its financial act cleaned up, we do not have to approve any tax increases.  

(Jack Humphreville writes LA Watchdog for CityWatch. He is the President of the DWP Advocacy Committee and a member of the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council.  Humphreville is the publisher of the Recycler Classifieds -- www.recycler.com. He can be reached at:  [email protected].)

-cw 

Eric’s ‘State of the City’: Rhetoric v. Budget Realities

LA WATCHDOG--On Thursday, Mayor Eric Garcetti delivered his State of the City address (photo above) to an enthusiastic City Hall centric audience at the headquarters of Norabachi Corporation, a growing Harbor City manufacturer of LED lighting for industrial and commercial applications.  On Wednesday, April 20, he will present his proposed budget for the year beginning July 1, 2016. 

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DWP Reform: Beware Herb Wesson’s Rush to the Ballot!

LA WATCHDOG--City Council President Herb Wesson is hell bent to place on the November ballot a measure to reform and restructure our Department of Water and Power so that it will be a more “nimble and efficient” enterprise that will grant management the flexibility to meet the ever increasing operating, organizational, and financial challenges in our rapidly changing world.  

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Nasty Rain Tax on the Horizon

LA WATCHDOG--“God gave us rain and you figured out how to tax it.” 

The current Board of Supervisors of the County of Los Angeles is considering developing its own Stormwater Plan to capture rainwater, stormwater, and urban runoff in effort to curb pollution in the Santa Monica Bay and to develop new sources of water to recharge our groundwater supplies. 

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Wesson, Garcetti Endorse LA 2020 Commission’s Budget Recommendations

LA WATCHDOG--On April 9, 2014, almost two years ago, the Los Angeles 2020 Commission recommended unanimously that our City create an independent Office of Transparency and Accountability to review and analyze the City’s budget and finances and the efficiency of its operations.  But this recommendation, along with other constructive, easy to implement measures contained in the LA 2020 report, A Time for Action, was buried in the bowels of City Hall, never to be heard of again. 

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Metro’s $120 Billion Tax Increase: No Oversight, No Deal

LA WATCHDOG--The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (“Metro”), Mayor Eric Garcetti, and the transportation lobby have started their full court press on the voters of Los Angeles County to approve a new 40 year, half cent increase in our sales tax to a 9½%, one of the highest rates in the country. 

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Whoa! City Employees Compensation Package Explodes … to $175,000

LA WATCHDOG--A simple investigation into how much it would cost to implement Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell’s motion to establish Indigenous Peoples Day as a legal holiday in the City of Los Angeles revealed that the average city employee’s fully loaded compensation is in excess of $165,000 a year for each of the City’s 31,000 civilian and sworn employees. 

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When Will LA Endorse Pension Transparency?

LA WATCHDOG--Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Council President Herb Wesson, Budget Committee Chair Paul Krekorian, (photo above) and Personnel Committee Chair Paul Koretz all have their heads buried in the sand, ignoring the implications of a $15 billion unfunded pension liability, $1.5 billion in annual pension contributions consuming 30% of the General Fund, and a negative net worth in the its Governmental Accounts. 

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LA’s Sidewalk Repair Program: Needs Money, Needs Management but Has a Lot Going for It

LA WATCHDOG--In 2007, the Bureau of Street Services estimated that the cost to repair our 4,600 miles of broken sidewalks was in the range of $1.2 billion. However, since that time, our City’s “leaders” have made very little, if any, progress in addressing the sorry state of our 10,750 miles of sidewalks that comprise over 2% of the City’s land mass.    

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City Council Slush Funds Are a Major League Rip Off

LA WATCHDOG--You need be a skilled forensic accountant with a large, well trained staff to even begin to understand the shenanigans associated with the discretionary slush funds controlled by the fifteen members of the City Council.  You may even need a high priced lawyer to haul the Council Members into court to have them honor your request made pursuant to the California Public Records Act. 

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DWP Reform: Behind Closed Doors

LA WATCHDOG--On January 22, Councilman Felipe Fuentes introduced a motion calling for a 2016 ballot measure to reform and to restructure our Department of Water and Power by creating a full time, professional Board of Commissioners, eliminating civil service for the Department, and placing a cap on the Transfer Fee at the pre Proposition 26 level of $221 million.  

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Revolt of the NIMBYs

LA WATCHDOG--NIMBY is a pejorative label used by real estate speculators when they are having a hissy fit about local residents fighting their oversized, out of character, luxury developments that will create even more traffic congestion and gridlock, adversely impacting small mom and pop businesses, affordable housing, and the quality of life of the renters and homeowners in the surrounding communities.  

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Why Is Lame Duck Felipe Fuentes Holding DWP Hostage?

LA WATCHDOG--Our Department of Water and Power cannot get out of the spotlight these days as it has proposed to raise our rates by more than $1 billion over the next five years.  This estimated 22% bump in our rates will also be accompanied by about a $175 to $200 million tax increase based on the less than transparent 8% Transfer Fee and the City Utility Tax. 

There have also been calls to reform and restructure the Department by Council Felipe Fuentes, Mayor Eric Garcetti, and others, including Mickey Kantor and Austin Beutner, the co-chairman of the LA 2020 Commission which called for an independent Los Angeles Utility Rate Commission almost two years ago to oversee the Department and its rates, finances, operations, and management. 

There are three areas of reform.  

The first calls for a more independent Board of Commissioners, free - for the most part - from the counterproductive political meddling by the City Council and Mayor.  This Board would be supported by a more robust Ratepayer Advocate.  However, there are some significant differences between the Fuentes and Garcetti proposals that need to be reconciled by June 17 so that this reform may be placed on the November ballot. 

The second reform would establish an independent DWP Personnel Department, free from the stifling City Hall bureaucracy and its restrictive civil service rules.  It may also allow for a more flexible contracting process.  

The third and most controversial reform involves the taxes that are paid by the Ratepayers.  The two taxes consist of the City Utility Tax and the 8% Transfer Fee that together are expected to contribute about $640 million to the City’s coffers this year.  However, there is a high probability that the 8% Transfer Fee will be tossed out by the courts.  As a result, Fuentes is proposing lowering the Transfer Fee to $220 million from its current level of $267 million, subject to the approval of the voters. 

On the other hand, Kantor and Beutner are proposing to freeze the payments to City Hall at its current level of $640 million which would essentially result in a lowering of the Transfer Fee over time. 

But the rate increase and the three reforms are on a very slow boat as Felipe Fuentes has refused to place these individual matters on the agenda of the Energy and Environment Committee.  Rather, it appears that he wants to delay the process by lumping them all together in a big bundle and hold the rate increases, deemed reasonable by the Ratepayers Advocate, and the two non-monetary reforms hostage to voter approval of the $220 million Transfer Tax.  

However, at a meeting of the Rules Committee last Friday, City Council President Herb Wesson took control of the process and pledged to have “an open and public conversation about making the City’s utility run more efficiently and effectively while ensuring accountability.” But it remains to be seen if this “outreach” will be a dog and pony show, with the City Council trying to sell us on its already drafted ballot measure that was created behind closed doors by Fuentes with help from IBEW Union Bo$$ d’Arcy.  Or will the City Council and the Mayor enter into a real give and take dialogue with the Ratepayers, the Neighborhood Councils, and other interested parties?  

While the increases in our water and power rates are not our idea of a good time, DWP has been open and transparent throughout the process and has made significant concessions, including lowering its rate request and agreeing to measureable goals that are subject to review and analysis by a more robust Ratepayers Advocate.  

As such, the Energy and Environment Committee and the City Council should move to approve the rate increases separate and apart from the proposed reforms.  Furthermore, each of the three reforms should be considered separate and distinct and allowed to stand on its own merits. 

Holding the rate increases and the non-monetary reforms hostage to the tax increase will backfire, resulting a lose-lose situation, where already skeptical voters will reject these reforms and tax increase because of their contempt for City Hall.

 

(Jack Humphreville writes LA Watchdog for CityWatch. He is the President of the DWP Advocacy Committee and a member of the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council.  Humphreville is the publisher of the Recycler Classifieds -- www.recycler.com. He can be reached at:  [email protected])

-cw

Can LA Afford to be Safe?

LA WATCHDOG--At the Tuesday morning meeting of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, Police Chief Charlie Beck told Mitch Englander and his fellow committee members that our Police Department needed to beef up its ranks to 12,500 officers by 2020 to “most effectively protect the City and keep crime down.” 

But there was no discussion about the cost of adding 2,500 officers, not an insignificant issue since the City is anticipating years of red ink as a result of the budget busting contract with the City’s civilian workers. 

Over the next four years, the City is expected to have a cumulative deficit of over $400 million.  This does not include any additional funds to fund the proposed homeless initiative, the hiring of 5,000 new civilian workers as outlined in the new labor contract with the civilian workers (some of which will replace retiring employees), or the repair and maintenance of our lunar cratered streets.  

Assuming that the LAPD could increase the size of the department to 12,500 officers and an all in cost (including pension contributions and healthcare benefits) of $100,000 a year for the new hires, the four year budget deficit would increase by over $600 million, resulting in a $1 billion shortfall over the next four years. 

However, it is highly unlikely that the LAPD will be able to hit the 12,500 officer target by 2020 as many experienced veterans will be retiring.  This is compounded by the LAPD’s difficulty in attracting qualified recruits given its poor reputation relative to other law enforcement agencies.  

The LAPD has the difficult mission of maintaining public safety.  It also has to report to the Police Commission and the City Council who often second guess the Department, relying on their 20-20 hindsight, especially now the crime rate has spiked and there have been some unfortunate killings of civilians. 

The Police Department is also a large, complex organization with almost 14,000 sworn and civilian employees and a budget, including all related costs, of almost $2.6 billion, an amount that may be understated because of all the recent liability claims that have contributed to this year’s budget deficit of almost $100 million.  The department also needs almost $300 million over the next five years to replace old equipment.  

As with any large, complex organization, the most important factor is management and its ability to develop and implement a strategy and communicate with its constituency.  But that seems to be lacking at our Police Department as Chief Charlie Beck is under fire by the Department’s union and many members of the minority communities.  

That includes many voters who remember his threat that a “minimum of 500 officers that patrol our neighborhoods will be laid off and our historically low crime rates may be in danger” unless the voters approved Proposition A, the proposed permanent half cent increase in our sales tax.  Of course, shortly after Proposition A was rejected by 55% of the voters in March of 2013, Mayor Villaraigosa announced that there would be no layoffs. 

The Police Department cannot afford to increase the size of the police force to 12,500 officers unless there is a sizeable tax increase that will most likely be in the range of $500 million.  This equates to a 10% increase in our real estate taxes or a 1% increase in our sales tax.  But Chief Charlie Beck does not have the necessarily credibility with the voters which would result in another failed ballot measure. 

Maybe it is time for Chief Charlie Beck to retire. 

 

(Jack Humphreville writes LA Watchdog for CityWatch. He is the President of the DWP Advocacy Committee and a member of the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council.  Humphreville is the publisher of the Recycler Classifieds -- www.recycler.com. He can be reached at:  [email protected])

-cw

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