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Money Matters

NEIGHBORHOOD COUNCIL BUDGET ADVOCATES-(This is the fourth in a series of articles on the history of the Budget Advocates.) 

Demanding more power 

Businesses and people who suffered from the evisceration of city services in the wake of the financial meltdown of 2008 demanded a stronger say on how the city was spending our money. 

Section 909 of the new City Charter gave each Neighborhood Council the right to present to the Mayor and City Council an annual list of priorities for the city early enough in the budgeting process that the input could be considered in a timely fashion. 

First Mayor Hahn and then Mayor Villaraigosa met with representatives of the Neighborhood Councils in the early 2000s. These meetings were somewhat informal and varied from year to year, at times culminating in exercises where attendees selected what percent of the budget should be allocated to certain areas. 

The nitty gritty of a balanced budget 

Although it might be hard to believe given recent record revenues, Los Angeles is headed for a $200 million shortfall this year if the numbers released in the first quarterly Financial Status Report hold true. 

In it, the Los Angeles City Administrative Officer states that “projected overspending in the current year [is] mainly due to additional salary obligations pursuant to various new labor agreements.” This was a rather major oversight if it was not factored into the overly optimistic budget passed just last June by the City Council. 

This $10.6 billion budget was commended by one city leader as being the “best budget we’ve seen in 10 years.” 

But best for whom?  

The folks at City Hall will attempt to patch this deficit by not filling needed positions, by not addressing needed repairs and by cutting services that the city’s stakeholders both want and deserve. 

To be effective, the Neighborhood Councils, their Budget Representatives and the Budget Advocates needed to understand more, much more, about the city’s financial processes and how the budgets are developed.  

Since every city department creates its own budget, the Budget Advocates have needed to learn more about the mission and demands of each department in order to better advise the Neighborhood Councils and their stakeholders on the complexities of weighing service demands vs. costs and how these impact both quality of life and taxes. 

Given that the city is required by law to approve a balanced budget in advance of each fiscal year, Budget Advocates must also learn how to assess how a multitude of competing needs gets distilled down to an amount equal to or less than projected income. What are the trade-offs? What games do the decision-makers play to maintain harmony? Or at least avoid open hostilities. . . 

Furthermore, the Budget Advocates must evaluate how the city responds to all ongoing fiscal demands – homelessness, fires, union raises, revised pension projections -- that arise after the budget has been locked. They also must question why these items have not been included in the budget in the first place. 

And take action by advising stakeholders of budget deficits and the sleight-of-hand manipulations the City Council has taken to bury them. Because dead bodies have a habit of coming back to haunt the living. 

And if city stakeholders really want to see services come back to their neighborhoods, they must learn how to navigate the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the city’s many and overlapping departments and use the tools available, including the Neighborhood Councils, Budget Representatives and Budget Advocates, to succeed. 

Dipping toes in the murky waters of the city budget 

Back to our history – about 10 years ago, the Budget Advocates became more structured with formalized Bylaws and twice-monthly meetings under the leadership of Jay Handal, the then-current Chair. 

What at one time had been a session for Budget Representatives with someone from the city’s budgeting sphere at the yearly Congress of Neighborhoods has evolved into a “Budget Day” held once a year to educate not only Neighborhood Council board members but also stakeholders about the Los Angeles city budget. The Mayor, City Councilmembers, city department executives and experts speak in a general assembly to demystify the process and address fiscal issues of the day. 

Attendees then regroup by region to offer the Budget Advocates insight on their local concerns. 

In the fall, Budget Advocates meet with the city’s department heads to discuss the departments’ goals and the financing needed to provide the services Angelenos deserve. Based on those meetings, Budget Advocates write reports with recommendations which are appended to a yearly White Paper that addresses overall concerns about the city’s fiscal health from the point of view of residents and businesses and, in many cases, the departments themselves. 

The White Paper is presented to the Mayor every spring before he releases his budget for the subsequent year and is then distributed to the city’s Budget and Finance Committee and the rest of the Councilmembers, the departments, and the Neighborhood Councils. 

The viewpoints presented in the White Paper are often diametrically opposed to what the Mayor and City Council incorporate into the city’s budget for the following year which is passed with too much haste and too little consideration, harking back to the days when city patriarchs ran roughshod over the interests of the neighborhoods. A situation that led directly to the secession attempts in the 1990s and may bring us there again. 

Any Angeleno can step up and try to make a difference. Anyone interested in becoming a Budget Representative should contact their Neighborhood Council. Budget Representatives do not need to be board members.  

It is through each Neighborhood Council’s Budget Representatives that the Budget Advocates keep in touch with the stakeholders throughout the year.  

A modicum of success 

Many of the recommendations made by the Budget Advocates have been included in legislation or are under review. Just raising the issues and communicating them to the decision-makers increases awareness and lays the ground for future success. 

But there is a long way to go. 

People who want to help reform our broken system need to step forward.

 

(The Budget Advocates are an elected, all volunteer, independent advisory body charged with making constructive recommendations to the Mayor and the City Council regarding the Budget, and to City Departments on ways to improve their operations, and with obtaining input, updating and educating all Angelenos on the City’s fiscal management.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.