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Villaraigosa's promises on police crumble in L.A.


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  • Villaraigosa's promises on police crumble in L.A.

    Two years ago, newly elected Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa vowed to put 1,000 more cops on the city's dangerous streets and proposed to raise trash collection fees to provide the money.

    "Every new dollar residents pay for trash pickup," the mayor promised in a city news release, "will be used to put more officers on the streets."

    Residential trash collection was boosted from $11 a month to $26. The new fees generated $137 million, but the city hired only about 400 more cops, according to a recent report from City Controller Laura Chick, and they cost about $42 million.

    So, where did almost $100 million go? Chick's report revealed that most of it went to higher salaries for those already on the Los Angeles police payroll, covering the nearly 10 percent raises that the city granted to police unions.

    Villaraigosa could break his promise because technically the trash money was never specifically earmarked for new cops.

    "Probably the public did not think at the time that the (trash money) was going to pay for raises," Chick said. "If there were misperceptions or unrealistic expectations that the money was only going to be used for police hires, my report dispels that myth."

    That seems to be a polite way to say Angelenos should have known better than to trust politicians' words. And it explains, in large measure, why California politicians from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger – who once promised, and failed, to end "crazy deficit spending" – are held in such disrepute these days.

    Most of the trash money was diverted into underwriting the city's cash-strapped general fund, which includes those generous raises for cops already on the street. And that's just the beginning of the tale. Los Angeles faces a whopping budget deficit, despite the trash fee, and Villaraigosa and the City Council want to raise trash fees even higher to cover the shortfall, along with boosting a batch of other fees.

    Villaraigosa also is promoting a countywide sales tax hike devoted to improving mass transit. The council has approved a "parcel tax" on homes and businesses for the November ballot that would finance anti-gang programs.

    The amounts of money are not huge, but one wonders whether Villaraigosa and other city leaders are overreaching by proposing a wide array of new fees and taxes while recession is hitting the state and Southern California is being hammered especially hard.

    What's happening in the state's largest city echoes what's happening in Sacramento as Schwarzenegger and lawmakers struggle with a $15.2 billion general fund budget deficit and Democrats propose $8.2 billion in new taxes, plus several billion in other revenues, to close the gap.

    Californians are leery of any new taxes, but polls indicate they're marginally willing to accept higher levies if they believe they'll be spent wisely for specific purposes. In that context, just about the worst thing any politician can do is a bait-and-switch, collecting the money for one stated purpose only to use it for another, as Los Angeles did on trash fees.

    Money is fungible, and by imposing new fees and taxes for some popular purpose, such as battling crime, but using it to indirectly underwrite less popular purposes, such as salary raises, welfare or health care for the poor, politicians squander their credibility, thus making voters less likely to accept their promises in the future.

    They – and we – would be better served if they were upfront about their purposes, rather than constructing elaborate fictions that imply voters are too stupid to understand reality. If efforts to raise taxes and fees this year for mass transit, gang suppression and police fail, Villaraigosa and other Los Angeles politicians have only themselves to blame.


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