That's my discouraging take on the last few years of massive deficits and deep budget cuts. You might not notice much of a change on the surface - cops are still patrolling, firefighters are still responding, trash still gets picked up once a week, and potholes, by and large, still get filled. But as I note in the August issue of Los Angeles magazine, the city is different and not in a good way. The hollowing out is largely being done on the sly by borrowing money, deferring maintenance and overtime, benefiting from onetime revenue gains, and moving pockets of available cash from department to department. Most troubling has been the elimination of thousands of jobs through retirements, transfers, and hiring freezes. Not since Tom Bradley stepped down as mayor in 1993, when the city had 400,000 fewer people, has civilian employment been so low.
This is more than just a few numbers moving in the wrong direction. 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.
"You see a government that's struggling to provide basic city services," says city controller and mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel, who has lost 21 percent of her staff since she took office in July 2009. Greuel is in full campaign mode when describing L.A.'s crumbling infrastructure and degradation of services, but I heard the same lament, both on and off the record, from officials not running for anything. Miguel Santana, who oversees budget matters as the city administrative officer and whose candid comments haven't always been well received among lawmakers, describes the cuts as a form of crisis management that offers immediate relief but no long-range cure. "In an effort to keep the patient alive, we did things that we normally wouldn't have done," he says.
The recession and sluggish recovery have kept tax receipts way too low, while sharply higher pension and health care obligations, along with the general costs of operating a very complicated city, have kept expenses too high. Some efforts have been made to reduce the biggest culprit--retirement benefits--but what's needed is a 401(k)-type pension program that won't make a big dent in the budget. Understandably the unions are balking at such an approach; they expect the city to abide by existing contracts. Except that the city can't afford to do that. As it is, the deficit in 2012 was about $230 million, and the imbalance is expected to grow--to $342 million in 2013 and $427 million in 2014. And unlike the federal government, where red ink is added to the existing debt, most cities and states must find a way to balance the books.