Bill Boyarsky
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March 29, 2010

Hot times at the DWP: Baking journalists, snappish mayor

Maybe Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa made the reporters wait in the blazing hot Department of Water and Power plaza for a half hour Monday because he wanted to prove there is enough sunshine to make Los Angeles a solar- powered city. Or maybe he just wanted to stick it to the journalists because they annoy him.

Whatever the reason for the delay in his news conference, it sure was poor strategy for a mayor who had hopelessly gummed up his announcement of a DWP rate increase last week and then, with help of Councilman Richard Alarcon, was trying to recoup his losses by announcing he was reducing his request.

Reporters sought the small amount of shade. Enterprising Pete Demetriou of KNX talked the DWP security guards into bringing out a case of bottled water. Finally the mayor, looking cool in a black blazer, stepped out of the DWP building at the Civic Center into the sunlight.

Last week he had announced electricity rate increases of up to 28 percent over the next year. The reasons for this were unclear. Neither the mayor or the DWP could explain how the money would be spent, except to say it much of it would be for that vague but noble cause called “Green.” Business protested as did ratepayer groups. I wrote that this was a clueless request for the middle of the Great Recession with financially- strapped homeowners already under siege from foreclosures and unemployment. The plan promised creation of thousands of “green” jobs but didn’t say what they were.
A few days later, I got this e-mail from Deputy Mayor Matt Szabo:

“Mr. Boyarsky,
I would be happy to answer your questions / brief you on this if you'd like.
Your analysis on LA Observed was not exactly accurate.”

I e-mailed him my phone number and said that I would enjoy talking to him, but Szabo never called. So hearing of the mayoral press conference, I figured I’d better head downtown and get the Villaraigosa side of the story.

He announced he had adopted a compromise plan proposed by Alarcon. Instead of increases of up to 28 percent, Villaraigosa would go for a one- time 6 percent increase for residential customers and between 5.7% to 7.1 per cent for businesses. The increases would be spread out over two years. He gave a reason: The cost of coal, oil and natural gas needed for city power plants was rising faster than revenues. Costs exceed revenues by $125 million a year and the gap will grow, the mayor said.

The rest of the plan remains muddy. Future increases will “move Los Angeles toward greener, cleaner sources of power…We all know our future lies in the green economy,” he said.

But what does he mean by the “green economy?” Is it making and installing solar panels or manufacturing electric-powered cars? Is the city going to subsidize such jobs? Specifically what kind of help would be given low- income homeowners to pay higher rates or install solar systems?

The journalists asked their questions. The mayor was snappish in some of his replies. Maybe the heat was getting to him, too.

March 16, 2010

The unfair Villaraigosa DWP rate increase

In proposing big increases in electricity bills, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa seems to ignore the terrible hardships the Great Recession is imposing on the working people of Los Angeles. The increase—really a tax hike—is, in fact, a highly regressive tax, hitting low-income people disproportionately. It’s just one more blow to residents suffering from one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates. Just how are they supposed to pay their utility bills, which in some cases can be higher than their mortgage payments?

I’ve been reporting for Truthdig about the combination of rising unemployment and lack of medical care is causing great suffering. I have visited the California Employment Department office in Pacoima and St. John’s Well Child and Family Center in South Los Angeles.

In Pacoima, I talked to Alameda Holstein, who works for the Los Angeles City Department of Aging and is attach├ęd to the employment office to help find jobs for those 55 and older. “They are very desperate,” she said of the job seekers. ‘They have not been in this position before. They are very much humiliated. … Very well-educated people are coming to me.’” At. St John’s, the line of people awaiting medical care stretched a half a block or more.“I think [the problem] has expanded 20 percent this past month,” said Ingrid Hernandez, a staff member.

Department of Water and Power electricity bills would rise between 8.8 and 28.4 percent, according to the Los Angeles Times, in a plan that is supposed to encourage the use of renewable power, such as solar, and move the city away from coal-driven power plants.

It is unclear how this money would be spent. David Zahniser and Phil Willon reported in the Times that the money “would help pay for new environmental initiatives, including more aggressive conservation programs and a solar initiative designed to create 16,000 jobs.” What kind of jobs? The presence of union officials at the mayor’s side is a pretty good sign that they would be union jobs at the Department of Water and Power, whose employees are being spared the layoffs ripping through the rest of city government.
Villaraigosa said the Water and Power Department would hire “green doctors” to evaluate the energy efficiency of homes. The “doctor” would also help residents buy energy efficient lightbulbs and refrigerators. in my opinion, the guy at the hardware stores knows enough about energy efficient bulbs, and Costco will be glad to sell me an energy efficient refrigerator without the city’s help.

Villaraigosa said more increases will be needed in the future for him to reach his goal of obtaining 40 percent of the city’s power from renewable sources. Encouraging use of renewable sources is an admirable goal, but levying a tax/rate increase to reach it in the depths of this recession makes no sense. Especially when this tax will hit the poor the hardest. The sad fact is that only more prosperous Angelenos will be able to fork over $20,000 or so for a home solar system, or $8,500 for a do-it-yourself solar kit from Home Depot. The poor and the middle class, struggling to make ends meet and worrying about their jobs, will be just plain out of luck.

March 4, 2010

Spending cuts at the grassroots

Amazingly, the city community building meeting room was filled with anti-spending cut protestors at the inconvenient hour of 6 p.m. Wednesday, and the stars of the evening were the students from Lincoln High School.

The meeting was held at Ramona Hall Community Center on North Figueroa Street by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation to hear what the public thinks of the $23 million in cuts officials are proposing for this year as a result of the big city budget deficit.

I’m glad I went because I got a ground view of the budget process that is missing from most news accounts. My wife Nancy and I were there as a show of support for our daughter Robin Smith, who coordinates the city-financed charter bus program for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy that takes students and seniors to all the mountain parks. The $4.5 million program would be wiped out by the proposed cuts, and the conservancy hoped that the sight of supporters in the audience would help convince the department, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the City Council to keep the buses rolling.

The Department of Transportation, while hardly as well known as the police and fire departments, reaches deep into the lives of Los Angeles residents, handing out parking tickets, creating bikeways, operating the traffic signal system and running a transit system including the short range DASH buses, the long range commuter buses, subsidies for senior transportation and the charter bus program.

Community advocates in the neighborhood spoke up for the charter buses to the Santa Monica Mountain parks. Advocates said parks are far out of the range of public transit, and the city charter program provides the only access for people, many of them poor, without motor vehicles. It’s especially important to urban students in a city famously short of parks. The trips offer a chance to study nature and hike through the mountains. Life, they learn, is not all busy streets, cracked sidewalks, crowded living quarters and noise.
Miguel Luna of the advocacy organization Urban Semillas, said, “the charter bus program, which we benefit from, makes it possible for our families to make a connection with nature.” Luis Garcia of the City Projects civil rights organization, criticized the Transportation Department for not doing an analysis of how cancelling the charter program would impact Latino, Asian and African American communities, all of which are served by the buses. Federal law requires agencies such as the Transportation Department to make such analysis when they receive federal funds, as does the Los Angeles department.

I was struck by the importance of DASH in improving life in the north Figueroa area, which reaches roughly from Lincoln High School on the north to Chinatown on the south. The big County/USC hospital is on the edge, reachable by DASH buses. The area is a neighborhood that, like Los Angeles, is too spread out for walking to destinations. It is transit dependent. As one resident told the Department of Transportation officials conducting the hearing, “many of us don’t drive and DASH takes us everywhere.”

Or as one of the Lincoln High School students told them, “I don’t know if you feel good when you see an 82-year-old grandmother walking up a steep hill carrying groceries.” Several Lincoln students spoke. They were well prepared, made strong arguments for the DASH line and were backed up by cheers and applause from their fellow students.

This was the last of several department hearings on the budget. Similar sessions are being held elsewhere in city government. From the meetings will come the recommendations to the mayor and the council who have the final say on the cuts.

March 2, 2010

A union view of MLK hospital

John Tanner, the executive director of Local 721 of the Service Employees International Union, was unhappy about how I described the staff at the now closed Martin Luther King Jr. county hospital.

I had written in LA Observed, “A great weakness of the old hospital was a poorly trained and indifferent staff, all but immune from discipline because of union contracts, county civil service rules and incompetent administrators. When anyone attempted to crack down, the unions would go whining to the Board of Supervisors.”

After receiving his e-mail, I drove over to union headquarters, west of downtown Los Angeles, and listened to what he had to say. It’s an important issue because the success or failure of the new hospital replacing the old King will depend on the dedication and skill of its doctors, nurses, aides, and maintenance workers.

He said I was wrong to blame the union contracts. The employees at other county hospitals, including respected Rancho Los Amigos and Harbor, have the same contracts. I thought that was a good point. But I pointed out that the King situation was more complicated: the King workers had been backed by politically influential longtime leaders of the African American community who felt they had a proprietary interest in the hospital and resisted any change.

Rather than dwell on the failure of the old King, Tanner wanted to talk about the future. He became executive director of the union as the old hospital was being closed. He didn’t object to the Times’ exposes. The hospital, he said, “lost sight of its patient focus.”

When the new hospital opens, his union will seek to represent the workers. It will be probably be opposed by the rival National Union of Healthcare Workers.

He said his local would seek a “quality partnership” with the management of the new hospital, with nurses, aides and others involved in deciding the many details of operating the place. These range from identifying patients correctly and administering medicine to preventing infection and hearing patient complaints. They sound simple, sort of the minimum anyone would expect in a hospital. But failure to accomplish these tasks was instrumental in King’s downfall.

Local 721 is trying out its partnership idea at the big walk- in urgent care center adjacent to the site of the new hospital. But Tanner said it is slow going. County human relations officials are reluctant to try something new. “Collaborative efforts are outside the experience of the county and unions, “ he said. The first meeting between the county officials and the union was held last November, but nothing much has been accomplished. County officials asked for a delay.

Having spent too much time covering county government, I wasn’t surprised at its slow pace and reluctance to change.

But if workers and management don’t create a better work culture the new King will probably suffer the same fate as the old.

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