Democracy in Action: LA’s NC Budget Advocates are Your Voice at the City Budget Table

15 CANDLES

MY TURN--One of the most successful parts of the Neighborhood Council System is the work done by its "Budget Advocates." Briefly, each of the 96 Neighborhood Councils is supposed to appoint a Budget Representative. They in turn elect three representatives from each region and these thirty-six brave souls spend the better part of the year working on recommendations for the Mayor's Budget. In the last five years, the Budget Advocates have recommended more than 150 suggestions of which more than a third have been adopted; a third are still up for discussion; and the final third has disappeared to the “black hole.” 

Last Saturday, more than 160 of these representatives spent most of the Budget Advocate

Day at City Hall listening to LA City Controller Ron Galperin and CAO Miguel Santana discuss the City budget – what monies are coming in…and what’s going out for fiscal year 2017-2018. 

This subject (a weighty one for a Saturday morning), was covered in an intensive program that also included the State of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) address delivered by General Manager Grayce Liu. The keynote address was given by City Council President Herb Wesson and there were presentations of the pros and cons concerning two of the City bond issues appearing on the November 8 ballot. City Council Budget and Finance Chair Paul Krekorian also spoke to the group. 

The audience was treated to a jocular Herb Wesson who told them how valuable they were to both the City and to him personally. He had changed the jurisdiction over Neighborhood Councils away from the previously inactive Education committee and placed it with his Rules Committee. He talked about the progress he had made with the NCs, including giving them more time to address the Council and increasing their funding. 

He also said that, starting in January 2017, the finances and funding for the NCs would move to the City Clerk's office. Handling the finances for ninety-six individual NCs has caused a real bottleneck; sometimes people are so concerned about failing that they don't try anything new, said Wesson. He thinks that the NC is a great system but must receive constantly updating. (See my July 21, 2016 article in CityWatch.)  

Getting the funding increased to where it was in 2009 is another item on Wesson’s list, although he did manage to get an additional $5000 added to each NC’s budget last year. (This is the subject for a future article.) NCs should develop a template for how to spend their funding given that many of them finished last year with funds left over. Currently there is no rollover, so what isn't spent goes back to the City’s General Fund. 

Many of this year’s budget representatives are new to the city budget process. I have now been to five of these Budget Advocate days and I’m at least aware of what all of it means. Some of the newbies have a real education in front of them. 

Miguel Santana broke down the $8,776,961,274 budget, making it a little easier to understand. 

As an example, let's use one dollar and see how it is divided: 

43.2     Community Safety

29.1     Home &Community Environment

11.1     Transportation

6.7      Cultural, Educational and Recreational Services

2.4       Human Resources, Economic Assistance and Development

7.5      General Administration and Support 

If you are interested in seeing how these categories break down you can find them on the CAO website. 

CAO Santana has been in that position for seven years. He talked about the budget being a "declaration of principles and values." Priorities are restoring funds to the Fire Department and getting new equipment. The City is hiring more than 200 additional firefighters. Getting civilians to man the administrative departments for the Police will allow more uniformed police to be on the streets and become more engaged in the various communities. Public safety spending is the largest allocation from the budget. 

Los Angeles has a huge homeless problem and the cost just to maintain that particular group never ends. Santana said that running the government is an ongoing process that never stops.   

One of the really neat things that Controller Ron Galperin has accomplished is his "LA Portal" website. Go to www.lacontroller.org and you can explore your neighborhood and streets with interactive maps of City properties, crime stats, street paving and more. You can also see every check written by the City and how it is allocated -- along with why we spend ten million dollars for gloves. 

Ron Galperin started his political life as an NC Budget Advocate and the rest is history. LA has won awards for its transparent financial disclosures. Galperin sets the transparency bar high; the majority of our "electeds" are not even close. Not only that, but he is always accessible and really enjoys the interaction with his constituents. He also listens...an unusual attribute for a politician. 

I really miss our former Deputy Mayor in charge of Budget and Innovation, Rick Cole. The City of Santa Monica is most fortunate to have him as its General Manager. He used to attend Budget Advocate Days, actually staying on to visit during the regional breakout sessions. I saw no one from the Mayor's office there on Saturday. 

Each year, the Budget Advocates put together a "White Paper" to present to the Mayor, the City Council and to the Budget and Finance Committee. They only had one meeting with the Mayor this year. 

Councilmember Krekorian also lauded the BA group for their participation and invaluable help. He reminded them that in 2010, there was a billion dollar budget deficit that caused 15% cuts almost across the Board; this was because the City Charter calls for a balanced budget. Today, LA has the largest reserve in its history. A former once LA Mayor predicted that LA would be broke in three years. Instead, its credit rating has gone up in the last four years, as has economic activity. In the last three years, LA has spent $30 million for sidewalk repairs and has generated 15,000 youth summer jobs. 

According to outgoing BA Chair, Terrence Gomes, President of the Los Angeles Alliance of Neighborhood Councils (LAANC,) the Budget Advocates interview each City Department Manager, talk to their stakeholders, have regular meetings and take into consideration the needs of their neighborhoods. Los Angeles is vast in geography, diversity and economics. The BAs make an effort to include all points of view since, for example, the Harbor area has different challenges than, say, the Northern San Fernando Valley. 

Representative Pauletta Tonilas from LA Metro gave a nuts and bolts presentation as to why it was very important to pass a half-cent tax for LA Metro expansion. Budget Advocate and CityWatch columnist Jack Humphreville gave equally compelling reasons why it should be defeated. 

Councilman Jose Huizar's Policy Director, Martin Schlageter, discussed the benefits the Homeless Bond would provide. Jay Handal, well known community activist and incoming Co-Chair of the Budget Advocates for 2017/2018, talked about a more effective way to finance and resolve LA's homelessness crisis. 

We will be examining all the pros and cons in CityWatch over the next couple of months of both of these Bond issues and other items on the ballot. 

BA Co-chairs Terrence Gomes and Liz Amsted organized and executed an information-packed day.   Ms. Amsden was re-elected co-chair of the Budget Advocates for next year, along with Jay Handal who held the position previously. One has to remember that these BAs, even though elected by their peers and neighborhoods, do not get paid and are lucky if they can even park for free at City Hall for meetings. 

I visited several of the regional breakout rooms and saw that it was a very good example of democracy in action. After the last two weeks of our Presidential campaign, I felt a sense of comfort that, at least here -- where the tire hits the pavement – we’re doing a good job. 

As always comments welcome.

 

(Denyse Selesnick is a CityWatch columnist. She is a former publisher/journalist/international event organizer. Denyse can be reached at: Denyse@CityWatchLA.com) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.)