While cautiously optimistic upon learning that they might be spared the budget ax, Westside neighborhood council members are not backing off their requests to have their yearly monetary funds left intact after recently receiving a memo from a high ranking Los Angeles city official.
Special Assistant Jane Usher, who is a member of Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich’s inner circle, sent an e-mail from her personal account April 21st urging neighborhood council leaders to resist the budget cuts that are being proposed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
“This mayor lacks fiscal foresight. He has other agendas. He simply refuses to spend your money intelligently, to protect us,” Usher wrote, adding that Villaraigosa’s budget shows his “true colors.”
The proposed reductions of 104 positions in Trutanich’s office, which are included in the budget submitted by the mayor to the City Council, represents at least $7 million, which is crucial, Usher said.
“This is a wakeup call to the extent that anyone needs it,” Usher, a former city planning commissioner appointed by Villaraigosa, told The Argonaut. “The city attorney’s office was caught be surprise (by the number of proposed personnel cuts).
“I think that it’s a terrible distraction and we are more than disappointed and surprised.”
Usher said cutbacks to her department could have a dire effect on a number of initiatives that are of great importance to many local communities on the Westside, such as nuisance abatement and targeting illegal billboards.
“The net result of a possible reduction of enforcement would be an invitation to have less compliance than we already have today,” she said.
Dennis Hathaway, a Venice homeowner who has been leading a crusade against illegal billboards and supergraphics, fears any reductions to the city attorney’s staff could translate into the lack of enforcement that Usher mentioned.
“One thing that is very clear to me is since Trutanich’s election, the enforcement against illegal signs has been much more aggressive, and that is a direct result of his office’s activities,” said Hathaway, the director of Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight. “To cut their budget, I think, would be very shortsighted and counter-productive.”
Neighborhood council leaders have been monitoring this year’s budget negotiations as they did last year following a $5,000 reduction to their annual allotment provided by the City Council. This year, there have been competing figures of what some believed weeks ago would be an almost inevitable cut from the $45,000 neighborhood council budget to $22,500 or even less. Villaraigosa, in his budget released at his State of the City address April 20th, is proposing to keep the advisory councils’ budgets at $45,000.
The continued uncertainty prevents the local councils from any long-term financial planning, especially in regard to awarding grants for community projects, said Albert Olson, the Mar Vista Community Council chair.
“It makes it very difficult, which is why earlier this year we passed a resolution not to approve anymore (funding motions) until we know where we stand with the city’s budget,” Olson said.
Venice Neighborhood Council President Mike Newhouse said his board recognizes that due to the depth of the city’s financial crisis, numbers do frequently change.
“Everything is in flux right now,” said Newhouse, who has been actively involved with City Hall regarding the budget. “We realize that anything can happen.”
Usher said that she wanted the City Council and the local councils to be aware of what Villaraigosa is asking of the city attorney’s office and the ramifications that severe cuts would mean to the city’s residents.
“I wanted this memo circulated because it can be really difficult for the community to follow the nuts and bolts of what’s happening during the budget process,” Usher explained. “I want the public to get the big picture point of view, because the mayor’s message is as confusing as his budget document.”
Del Rey Neighborhood Council President Mark Redick agrees with Usher’s assessment on Villaraigosa’s budget and the disparate signals that City Hall has sent over the last two months.
“My initial impression is this is a house of cards locked in a room surrounded by smoke and mirrors,” Redick, who has been critical of how the city’s finances have been handled, asserted. “I like and respect the mayor, but you can’t trust his budget.”
Other local neighborhood council members like Cheryl Burnett are also leery of the latest financial projections.
“The people of Los Angeles have moved beyond distrust and into disgust with our city government. The budget numbers and potential impacts on our community change not only by the day, but by the official providing the information,” Burnett, who was recently elected to the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa, noted. “The result of our suspicion is not only inaction, but worse — a ‘protect my turf’ mindset.”
“Until the leaders in the city have the political courage to tackle the core, long-term budget issues we face, no real progress will be made. They must stop spinning and start speaking straight — not only to the people, but to entrenched interests and organizations.”
Much of the hesitancy about the budget numbers is due to the mayor’s own changing figures. First in February and again in March, Villaraigosa increased the number of city employees targeted for layoffs in order to close the city’s $212 million deficit from 2,000 to 4,000, in addition to proposing the elimination of municipal agencies like the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment and half of the full-time positions at the Cultural Affairs Department.
Villaraigosa now says he will only seek 750 layoffs, and his fiscal blueprint is largely based on projected infusions of property tax revenue, fees and revenue from the Department of Water and Power, which was locked in a battle earlier this month with the City Council over its refusal to release over $73 million to the city government after the council rejected its appeal for a rate increase.
“I think everybody realizes the urgency of our present financial condition,” Villaraigosa said during his speech. “This is a tough time for everyone now in Los Angeles.”
Usher understands why some neighborhood councils are reluctant to take Villaraigosa at face value after he presented his official fiscal plan for the city.
“All of us agree that in order to maintain the trust of the constituents we have to act responsibly,” she said. “We undermine ourselves when we send different messages on different days and offer mixed signals.”
The decision to take away money that many of the local councils had saved from previous allotments, called rollover funds, and earlier threats to slice their budgets are examples that Burnett cites.
“First we are told cuts of over 50 percent. Then they threaten to pilfer any rollover funds, essentially punishing those neighborhood councils, like ours, which responsibly managed public funds,” she said.
“The fundamental public relations issue is government’s complete loss of credibility, which is almost impossible to recover,” Burnett, a public relations specialist, continued. “Strong leadership would be inspiring community spirit and the fortitude to work together to solve this mess.”
Redick, whose council lost $93,000 in rollover funds to help close the deficit, believes the earlier 4,000 layoff figure was a “scare tactic” by the mayor to allow the council to approve a DWP rate increase.
“The mayor’s budget is long on platitudes, but when you look behind the numbers, it’s short on performance,” he said.
City Councilman Bill Rosendahl said Usher’s memo is an indication of a looming battle between Trutanich’s office and the mayor.
“I am very supportive of our city attorney, who has shown great leadership in going after the illegal billboards and supergraphics,” the councilman said.
Rosendahl said like Hathaway, he too is concerned about the possibility of a decrease in enforcement if Villaraigosa’s proposal is accepted.
“Frankly, that worries me as well,” he admitted. “I do not want to see (Trutanich’s) ability to do his due process hampered in enforcing our laws against these billboard companies.”
Villaraigosa’s office did not return calls for comment on Usher’s memo.