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Prop A Fails: 'Nothing is Sacred' in L.A. Budget Cuts

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The LAPD (left) could experience budget cuts due to the failure of Prop A. | Photo: Jametiks/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The city's police, fire, and other departments are all in danger of being subjected to hefty budget cuts in response to voters' rejection of a proposed half-cent sales tax, the president of the City Council said today.

Councilman Herb Wesson said that without the tax, things are "going to get ugly" for the police and other city departments.

"There will be some very hard choices," he said. "Every department will be on the table. Nothing is sacred."

Wesson, who led the charge to place Proposition A on Tuesday's ballot, said voters' rejection of the tax "makes our job that much more challenging."

He blamed the measure's defeat on the 16 percent voter turnout, citing previous turnouts at primary elections that were over 20 percent. The people who did come out to vote Tuesday, he said, consisted of "a very conservative electorate, one that historically votes moderate and conservative, and some angry voters as well."

Proposition A would have increased the city's sales tax by a half-cent, putting it at 9.5 percent overall, just under the 10 percent cap imposed by state law. According to the city, the tax hike would have raised about $211 million a year.

Revenue from the tax would have been used to fund the police and fire departments, along with senior services, gang- and drug-prevention programs, and street and sidewalk repairs. Some city leaders called it essential to residents' safety, but opponents slammed it as a money grab by a city unable to control its own spending.

In a recent report to the City Council, City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana said passage of the tax was critical to provide continued funding for as many as 500 police officer positions and to maintain other services. Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and Fire Department Chief Brian Cummings were among the supporters speaking about the need for the tax to pass.

Despite Santana's earlier projections, Wesson said it would be "irresponsible" to speculate on the types of cuts that could be made to close a $200 million-plus projected shortfall in next year's budget.

He also retracted his earlier statement that residents could face other fee increases, saying the comment "spilled out" after a long election night. Wesson said he plans to meet with the mayor and the police chief in the next few days.

"We've got a lot of money to find and everybody is going to feel the pain," he said.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who backed the measure, stressed that the city had cut 5,000 city employee positions in recent years and said he would work to prevent even more strident cuts from being made. He is expected to release his proposed budget in April.

"I had hoped for a balanced approach of new sales tax revenue paired with additional fiscal controls," he said. "Notwithstanding the gravity of the challenges that lay ahead, I remain steadfast in my commitment to protecting public safety services from further cuts."

Councilman Bernard Parks, a critic of the proposed sales tax increase, called on his colleagues at City Hall to take on the city's "sacred cows." He sent a letter to Santana last month detailing 22 alternatives to Proposition A, including looking into pension contributions by city employees, the police department's three-day workweek, privatization of services, and the size of the city's workforce.

"There have been years of kicking the can down the street," Parks told City News Service. "Now there is no can to kick."

Other opponents of the proposition, including former Mayor Richard Riordan, contended the tax proposal was a response to a consistent failure by the city to control its spending.

"This sales tax hike is bad for L.A., bad for hard-working Angelenos, bad for job-creating businesses and bad for the city's reputation," opponents wrote in a ballot argument against the measure. "It's a regressive tax that will have a disproportionate impact on working and middle-class Angelenos and encourage consumers to shop in nearby lower taxed cities.

"Worst of all, it doesn't solve the budget crisis, and will make finding real solutions so much more difficult in the future while delaying desperately needed repairs to our streets, sidewalks and other infrastructure."

According to the city, the 9.5 percent tax rate would have been on par with nearby cities such as Santa Monica, Inglewood, and El Monte.

The city is facing an estimated $216 million budget deficit in the coming fiscal year. In his report to the City Council, Santana said the deficit could jump to $360 million if the measure fails.

Beck and other supporters of the proposal contended that the tax was critical to maintaining police service and bolstering the fire department.

"Without Proposition A's additional revenue, a minimum of 500 police officers that patrol our neighborhoods will be laid off and our historically low crime rates may be in danger," supporters wrote in a ballot argument in favor of the tax. "... Proposition A will cost the average Los Angeles resident less than 10 cents a day, and by law the tax cannot be applied to food and medicine."

Meanwhile, voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved Proposition B, which ratified a pension-related change city leaders made last year.

Sworn officers who work for the city but were not part of the police force were absorbed into the Los Angeles Police Department as a cost-cutting move. Those officers, who are tasked with guarding and patrolling city property, facilities, and buildings, now have the option to switch from their civilian pension plan to the public safety pension plan.

The City Council placed Proposition B on the ballot to seek voter approval to allow officers who switch to the public safety plan to purchase, at their own expense, retirement credit for the work they've already performed. The allowance cannot be made without approval from voters. Santana said the measure will not result in additional costs to the city or its general fund.

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