Los Angeles City Administrator Miguel Santana recently unveiled a preliminary plan to reduce the city’s municipal budget that includes severe cuts to senior centers, cultural and recreational programs, as well as one area that has become a frequent target of City Hall – neighborhood council budgets.

Santana recommended a 20 percent reduction in neighborhood council allotments this fiscal year, which would translate into at least a $9,000 loss to the local boards’ annual budgets.

City officials are facing a projected $350 million shortfall and are looking at a variety of avenues where they can locate much needed revenue for the city’s coffers, and that includes local council budgets.

Neighborhood councils receive $45,000 a year from the city for their operating expenses and to fund various community projects.

Over the last three years, neighborhood councils, which were created via an amendment to the city charter in 1999, have been forced to battle to keep their budgets intact as city officials seek new ways to severely cut into the municipal deficit. This year the councils are planning a new strategy to confront the city’s financial crisis.

In response to Santana’s proposal, Westside neighborhood council presidents gathered at City Councilman Bill Rosendahl’s West Los Angeles office March 27 to get a head start on planning their arguments to defend what they believe is the protection of critical community services that would be lost if their budgets are sliced.

Mike Newhouse, the chair of the Westside Regional Alliance of Councils, said local councils have been a little late with their advocacy to save their budgets over the last two years, despite their successes in saving the majority of their allotments.

“The last three years after we’ve seen the budget come out, we’ve been sort of scrambling to get (Rosendahl) and the mayor behind us and our priorities heard. This year, we’re trying to do things a little bit differently,” Newhouse, a former Venice Neighborhood Council president, explained.

“We wanted to get in on the process a lot earlier so that they know what our positions and priorities are and to a certain extent to see where their heads are as well on the issue.”

Some of the council presidents say postponing the 2012 election for a year or using volunteers instead of the City Clerk’s Office could reap a potential windfall of over $1 million.

Until last year, local councils were responsible for their own elections.

West Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Chair Jay Handal said local councils have grown up over the last several years, and he likened the influence that they have been able to exert on their budgets to a familial maturation.

“I kind of look at this like an eldest son whose father passes away that now has to support the family,” said the West Los Angeles council chair. “Neighborhood councils have been forced to grow up, and this has been an evolutionary process for neighborhood councils.”

As an example of how neighborhood councils have grown in influence, Handal and other local leaders addressed the City Council directly April 5 and delivered a set of recommendations that they believe will save the city money.

“This is historic for us,” Handal said.

Neighborhood councils award community grants to various nonprofit organizations, schools and community groups for a variety of projects, and some say many of the grants will be curtailed or lost if they lose up to 20 percent or more of their current funding.

Venice Neighborhood Council Vice President Carolyn Rios said her council would likely be forced to limit community projects like the annual Oakwood Barbecue, the Walgrove Elementary School Garden and an after-school sewing project at the Boys & Girls Club of Venice.

“It means less of an opportunity for us to have projects where the community gets to know each other,” she said. “Any community is safer and more fun to be in when there are projects that they can interact with.”

Newhouse said neighborhood councils offer residents opportunities to bring local government directly to them.

“For most folks living in a community, what happens at City Hall isn’t all that accessible, unless you work really hard to make yourself part of that culture and reap the benefits of it,” Newhouse pointed out. “It’s really a good place to have a megaphone to the community about what’s going on at City Hall.

“And even if you cut $1,000 from our budget, that’s one, two or three of those events that are gone.”

Del Rey Neighborhood Council President Eric DeSobe said two new community events might be eliminated if his board lost funding.

“Many of those projects, like the Del Rey Cup (a soccer tournament at Mar Vista Gardens) or the Del Rey Art Walk or the CARE 5K fundraiser, could not occur with significant cuts to neighborhood council budgets,” he said.

Handal, who also chairs an organization made up of neighborhood council representatives called the Budget Advocates, has been meeting with City Hall over the last few years to examine and analyze the city budget in an effort to assist municipal leaders with the fiscal crisis.

Rosendahl, known as a staunch backer of his neighborhood councils, said the local boards serve as his “eyes and ears” throughout the various committees that he represents and he does not support efforts to dramatically reduce their funding.

“They are the first leg of grassroots democracy,” he said.

Handal said City Controller Wendy Greuel’s office identified 38 audits last year that could have potentially saved as much as $300 million. Greuel submitted them to the City Council, but city leaders never acted on them.

“The fact is, the City Council dropped the ball on those 38 recommendations,” the West Los Angeles chair asserted.

Greuel’s office confirmed Handal’s claim. As an example, the audit of the Los Angeles Convention Center points out that city officials unnecessarily paid over $700,000 in overtime costs that could have been avoided if better controls were in place, according to her office.

Other audits found uncollected funds were parking citations and Emergency Management Services (EMS) billing accounts, where the city is collecting 53 percent and 38 percent of the money it is owed, respectively.

Greuel warned neighborhood councils last year that they would likely lose any rollover funds this year that were not identified in board documents as being appropriated for a specific community grant before April 15. Rollover funds consist of money that was not spent from a previous year’s budget.

Many local councils lost funds that were hoarded to the city in July when the new fiscal year began and Handal said Santana has proposed sweeping them again this year.

Santana was not available for comment.v

“There’s a lot of discussion about how long you should have the rollover funds,” Greuel told the Del Rey Neighborhood Council at a meeting last year. “In every other city department other than the mayor, the City Council and DONE (Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, which supervises the advisory councils), rollover funds are swept every year and go back into the general fund to balance the budget.”

The controller suggested that it was in a local board’s best interest not to keep more than a year or two of rollover funds.

Handal said Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has given his group a great deal of access to city departments and their staffs, which has enabled them to compile what they feel is a relatively accurate list of proposals to save money and perhaps shrink the budget.

“Kudos to the mayor’s team, because otherwise it would have taken us a long time to gather this information,” Handal said. “They have opened a lot of doors for us.”

Deputy Mayor Larry Frank complimented Handal’s group for their preparation and attention to detail.

“This is the most prepared group of budget advocates that has come out of the budget process,” Frank said. “The mayor was deeply impressed with their oral and written presentation.”

Santana has also asked for cuts to the Department of Recreation and Parks, graffiti removal programs, as well as for slashing the number of crossing guards near schools and a hiring freeze for police officers.

Rosendahl recommended that the WRAC representatives meet with him again before the final budget will be deliberated next month, a suggestion that Newhouse believes has merit.

“I think that this will pay big dividends,” he said. “I think it helps us get ahead of the curve.”

Villaraigosa’s budget will go to the City Council April 20.

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