Los Angeles neighborhood councils joined a long list of city-funded organizations that will see the sharp edge of the city’s budget axe as elected officials seek to close the municipal shortfall of $336 million.

The City Council voted unanimously May 18 to pass a $6.9 billion budget, which included cuts to police overtime, the benching of ambulances and fire trucks at approximately a quarter of the city’s fire stations, a loss of $19 million to the city’s Recreation and Parks Department and a 10-percent, or $4,500 reduction to the budgets of each of the city’s neighborhood councils.

Before the council vote, neighborhood councils had a budget of $45,000, which they use for purposes such as to award funds to nonprofit organizations for community-based initiatives, pay for website construction, newsletters and for community barbeques and various local projects.

Members of neighborhood councils agree that while they recognize the need for everyone to tighten their belts during a budget deficit, the loss of nearly $4,500 will affect their respective communities.

“There is no doubt these cuts will have a negative impact upon our community,” said Sharon Commins, the Mar Vista Community Council’s first vice president.

Del Rey Neighborhood Council President Eric DeSobe said recent initiatives like the Del Rey Cup and Del Rey Art Walk “will continue to receive priority in our budgeting decisions,” despite the 10 percent reduction.

“Our council’s shared financial sacrifice during these tough economic times means we will work even harder to ensure residents receive great bang for their taxpayer buck,” DeSobe said, adding that he anticipated continued support for Del Rey schools.

Rollover funds, money that some local councils have safeguarded for emergencies or simply not have spent, were also taken away this year by the City Council.

City Controller Wendy Greuel warned local boards last year at a Del Rey meeting that rollover funds would likely be spared in 2010, but local councils were likely to lose them in 2011 if they were not appropriated before March 15. The controller, who is now running for mayor of Los Angeles, suggested that it was in a local board’s best interest not to keep more than a year or two of rollover funds.

“There’s a lot of discussion about how long you should have the rollover funds,” Greuel told the Del Rey Neighborhood Council 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 local councils have been successful in fending off cuts to their budgets in recent years. Displaying the growth in stature and influence that the bodies have gained since their inception in 1999, neighborhood councils successfully lobbied the City Council last year not to slice their yearly allotments further. In 2009, lawmakers took away $5,000 from the councils’ $50,000 budgets, which was the allotment that the councils started with at their inception.

In March, a group of neighborhood council representatives called the Budget Advocates began working with city officials on budget strategies and addressed the City Council directly April 5. Led by West Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Chair Jay Handal, they delivered a set of recommendations that they believe will save the city money.

Handal said Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa gave the group 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,” he said in an interview in April. “They have opened a lot of doors for us.”

Handal criticized the City Council for reducing the budgets of the local boards, which he and others say perform services for their constituents that City Hall cannot. “The amount that they took from us was draconian,” he said.

Sherri Akers, a Mar Vista resident who has worked with her community council on a variety of environmental projects, said the allotments to neighborhood councils translate into direct benefits locally with very little overhead.

“My observation is that most of the money in our budget goes out to the community – to schools, the library, neighborhood block parties, events like the Fall Festival at the park, the Education Summit and the Green Garden Showcase. Very little is spent operationally,” noted Akers, the co-chair of the Mar Vista Green Committee.

Handal said considering that the City Council took away rollover funds as well as imposed a delay of neighborhood council elections for two years, the actual amount that was taken away is approximately $3.2 million for the 93 advisory councils.

He wondered if this was the beginning of a furtive plan to reduce the influence of neighborhood councils or even eliminate them. “Is this an attempt to destroy the neighborhood council system?” he asked.

Deputy Mayor Larry Frank said Villaraigosa respects neighborhood councils, but at a time when virtually every city department absorbed reductions in their budget, local councils were asked to do their part too.

“We are very much in a time of shared sacrifice,” Frank said.

Commins thinks that a different matrix can be used when awarding community grants, now that local boards’ budgets have been trimmed.

“My personal opinion is, lower the seed money/dollar amount threshold per individual grant to be sure we can give most worthwhile projects a little something,” she suggested. “Spread the scarce resources around.”

Akers cited the acquisition of $2,000 last year from DONE as an example of how community grants can lead to stronger ties between the local advisory boards and their constituents.

“The grant was to do the first ever Sustainable Works Green Living Workshop series in Los Angeles, and the Mar Vista series was a pilot project that we hoped would lead to a program throughout Los Angeles,” Akers recalled. “The results were phenomenal, both individually and for us as a community, and several members of the community council attended, which gave them a deeper understanding of the initiatives that we bring before the board.”

Handal challenged the mayor to use his veto power to restore the cutbacks to neighborhood council budgets. “Show us that you really support the neighborhood council system,” he said.

Frank said it is unlikely that there will be any major changes to the budget that the City Council forwarded to Villaraigosa. “It’s very close to what we gave them,” he said.

Frank added that major concessions on the part of the city’s unions played a significant role in this year’s budget negotiations.

Commins thinks neighborhood councils will find a way to continue to fund community grants, despite the loss of rollover funds and $4,500.

“Bottom line, I know we will do our best to fund as many great projects as best we can given this new financial reality,” she said.

The mayor is slated to sign the budget Thursday, June 2.

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