By Duke Helfand and Steve Hymon
Times Staff Writers
April 20, 2007
LOS ANGELES - Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa unveiled a $6.8-billion budget Thursday that reflects his top priority for the coming fiscal year — public safety — by continuing to boost the size of the police force and concentrate money on a broad strategy for combating gangs.
Villaraigosa's budget plan comes amid signs of slumping revenues, but the mayor said it nonetheless holds the line on most city services, avoiding cuts in library hours and efforts to combat gridlock.
And the spending blueprint will continue to chip away at a long-standing imbalance between what the city takes in and what it spends. In 2007-08, the mayor proposes taking $138 million less from city reserves to balance the books.
Villaraigosa also is proposing to add $8 million to the city's contingency fund, raising it to $187 million.
The mayor said he would accomplish all this by cutting spending in several city departments, slashing workers' compensation costs, setting firm expenditure levels and undertaking other efficiencies.
"This budget proves that we can put more cops on the street, work to reduce gang violence, provide necessary city services and guarantee the city of Los Angeles remains on sound financial footing as we head into an uncertain fiscal year," Villaraigosa said during a news conference in Baldwin Village.
Villaraigosa released his budget, which must be approved by the City Council, one day after announcing an initiative to reduce gang violence in some of Los Angeles' most troubled neighborhoods. His spending plan would focus $168 million, including $15 million in new money, on more police and prevention programs in eight "gang reduction zones" in South Los Angeles, the Eastside and the northeast Valley.
But his budget — and future spending plans — could be blown apart if the city and other municipalities lose a group of lawsuits over its right to collect cellphone user taxes. The litigation could cost the city $271 million a year, and the mayor said Thursday his proposal for the fiscal year starting July 1 contains no contingency plan to counter the potential loss.
The city faces other challenges as well, including upcoming labor negotiations with a union representing more than 11,000 city workers. Villaraigosa said he had budgeted money for those contracts but would not say how much.
The mayor said he decided to focus on public safety in December, when two bystanders — a 9-year-old girl in Angelino Heights and a 14-year-old girl in Harbor Gateway — died after being shot by gang members.
"The two incidents really hit me — and once I saw gang crime was up, I felt like we had to make this a priority," he said, referring to a 15.7% increase in gang crime last year.
As a result, the Los Angeles Police Department, which accounts for 48% of city spending, will get a 4.5% increase, an additional $53 million, thanks in part to an increase in trash pickup fees approved last year by city officials.
The coming year's budget contains no tax increases, the mayor said.
Villaraigosa said his goal is to add 235 officers to the LAPD in 2008 to eclipse its previous high mark of 9,852 sworn officers in June 1998. Los Angeles continues to have fewer police officers per resident than most other large cities.
"The budget that the mayor is proposing … is a good news budget for the Police Department because it is in fact prioritizing public safety," said Chief William J. Bratton, who joined Villaraigosa at his Baldwin Village news conference.
Villaraigosa's budget would maintain most city services at current levels or, in some cases, increase levels. Twenty-four library branches, for example, would be open more hours.
But some fees would rise. Developers would pay more for planning permits, and homeowners would be charged more for false alarms to police and for brush clearance.
The budgets of City Controller Laura Chick, a strong Villaraigosa ally, and the Bureau of Street Services would be cut, as would that of City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo.
The relationship between the mayor and Delgadillo has been tempestuous at times, but the cut raised eyebrows because the city attorney's office obtains gang injunctions and prosecutes some gang crimes.
"We're still reviewing the details of the budget but the city attorney is troubled because it appears, in terms of necessary funding for the fight against gang violence, instead of moving forward, we're actually going backward," said Delgadillo spokesman Nick Velasquez, declining to elaborate.
Other departments were clear winners. The city's planning agency — with the vocal and well-known Gail Goldberg at the helm — got the money to hire 35 more employees.
City Council President Eric Garcetti said the council would not be shy about tweaking Villaraigosa's budget as it weighs the spending plan with an eye toward improving constituent services and saving money.
"I think there will be a council stamp on this; it won't be some sort of drawn-out fight over priorities," Garcetti said. "I think there are ways to make this a tighter budget."
Though the mayor tried to balance revenues and expenses, he did not outline any new big-ticket items other than police hiring and gang initiatives. He said Thursday he would seek a housing bond, or perhaps higher fees for developers, to pay for more affordable housing.
Councilmen Tony Cardenas and Greig Smith have been discussing putting a $1-billion-plus bond measure before voters next year for street repairs. Councilwoman Janice Hahn is pushing for a $50-million bond issue in 2008 for anti-gang programs.