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Hollow Cities: Who Is To Blame?

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Mark Lacter believes that the city of Los Angeles has been "hollowed out," and the shell that Los Angeles has become is close to breaking. Writing in this month's Los Angeles magazine, Lacter (a business journalist who also writes for LA Observed) adds up some of the risks to everyday life in a "hollow" Los Angeles:

What's at stake is nearly every city service that people living and working in Los Angeles take for granted each day. The fire department, for example, has lost so many positions that response times are now longer for fires and medical emergencies. Recreation centers have been forced to eliminate day care and seniors programs while cutting Sunday and holiday hours. The Department of Transportation won't accept new requests for preferential parking designations because it doesn't have enough people to manage the extra work. Even good news comes with a catch: L.A. is repaving more streets than ever before, but because a different department is responsible for restriping lanes and painting STOP markings on the road -- and because money in that department is short -- the work often gets delayed for weeks, creating traffic hazards.

Long Beach is the county's second largest city, where the hollowing out is almost as grave. Faced with a $17 million deficit, Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster made plans in July to eliminate another 100 already vacant positions, layoff as many as 152 current city staff members, and cut 36 police and fire department positions through attrition.

Those cuts will wound. Paramedic services will likely fall to the same minimal level that cities in San Bernardino and Riverside counties currently receive. Crime scene investigations will be further curtailed for lack of trained staff. There will be 20 percent fewer police officers on Long Beach streets than in 2008, despite a spike in serious crime.

Austerity has other costs. Long Beach, which rolled back its recreation programs in the 1990s, plans to end most of its remaining free and subsidized youth programs. At least six of Long Beach's branch libraries will become "self-service facilities" as city librarians are let go. Less money for Public Works will delay fixing sidewalks. Other neighborhood programs will be cut.

Daily life in Long Beach will be harder, coarser, and less bearable. Mayor Foster calls this "the new normal."

Los Angeles, Lacter found, is in even worse shape: Crumbling streets and sidewalks; untrimmed trees, patched together water and sewer systems; fewer cops on the street because of limitations on overtime; and fewer fingerprint analysts, police clerks, and 911 operators. Lacter quotes City Administrative officer Miguel Santana, who says: "Right now I have no idea how we're going to solve the deficit next year. All of our solutions are pretty much exhausted. Maybe the public needs to tell us, 'We don't want you to do certain things anymore.'"

From my experience, the residents of Los Angeles or Long Beach are unlikely to get CAO Santana or Mayor Foster off the hook by offering up enough quality of life sacrifices to end their deficits. Why, residents ask, is the "new normal" making my neighborhood less livable?

There's plenty of blame to go around:

  • Blame the long and deep recession, which has eroded property tax revenue and cut into sales tax receipts.
  • Blame the long and fantastical boom preceding the recession, which encouraged Long Beach and Los Angeles to expand city workforces and toss cash and tax subsidies at developers and their schemes.
  • Blame police and fire unions for their success during the boom years in sweetening their pension plans beyond reason.
  • Blame city council members for a single-minded focus on financing their re-election at the cost of broader goals for their community. Blame the vacuous politics that allowed worsening conditions to be enshrined as "the new normal."

But also blame state government for precisely the same reason, and add into it a system of government financing that papered over structural weaknesses with borrowing, accounting tricks, and a massive realignment of local government revenue. Blame, for example, the state's shameless pandering to voters that lowered to less than one percent the local property tax on cars (called a license fee), draining city budgets for law enforcement and other neighborhood services. Blame the state's spasm of unintended consequences in killing redevelopment, a flawed but necessary recapture of local property taxes that had been flattened by Proposition 13. Blame a clueless Legislature and a succession of inept governors.
And blame all of us for accepting this mess in willful ignorance until cities tumbled into bankruptcy or criminal malfeasance. Blame us for swallowing the snake oil that everything will be just like it used to be if only unions were busted or pensions eliminated or someone else (not me) sacrificed something.

Blame us for letting it happen.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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