The pandemic is an emergency – something that was not expected but has disrupted our lives and livelihoods. In its initial stages, the City coped far better than most with the pandemic. And that was because an epidemic was one of the emergencies envisioned and planned for by the Emergency Management Department (EMD).
However, the City has not coped nearly as well with the fiscal emergency that our elected officials would like to blame on the pandemic but is actually rooted in their agreeing to unsustainable labor agreements in 2019, and to the more recent lack of proactive approaches to amending this year’s budget to address current exigencies.
As a reward for its prescience in planning for the pandemic response, the City’s hiring freeze combined with existing vacancies and employees taking advantage of early retirement under the City’s Separation Incentive Program has effectively slashed EMD’s senior staff by half, to the point that it will not be able to staff its own Emergency Operation Center in the event of earthquake, wildfire, flood or riot.
EMD’s budget for 2019-20 was a little over $3.75 million, less than $1 per person in all of Los Angeles. About $600,000 was for community emergency management and preparedness with only one public health coordinator whose responsibilities included bioterrorism, epidemics and outbreaks of infectious diseases (this was before the pandemic), and other health care issues such as water contamination (a real concern given the fracking within city limits) and the Aliso Canyon gas leak.
The Mayor requested all departments shave 3% off their budgets for 2020-21. He then added across-the-board furloughs when the pandemic hit and before the City’s budget was passed in June so this year’s budget allocation for EMD dropped almost ten percent to under $3.4 million.
In September, not having had much success with the furloughs due to union pushback, or with the early retirement plan which netted the City less than $3 million dollars, and with the loss of the tax revenue on which the budget depends being worse than the Mayor’s worst estimates, the Mayor requested further cuts from all but those departments providing essential services.
This was followed a week later with his annual Policy and Goals letter laying out directives for the 2021-22 budget and calling for even more belt-tightening.
On October 26, in a meeting of the City’s Budget and Finance Committee, EMD’s General Manager was asked if after cutting his senior staff in half, could EMD still staff the Emergency Operation Center?
The answer was no.
What does that mean for the citizens of Los Angeles?
It means no emergency operations from midnight to 8 a.m. It means not having EMD duty officers on weeknights and weekends to respond to emergencies – the Northridge earthquake hit at 4:30 a.m. on the Martin Luther King Day holiday – and to coordinate the initial response with the fire and police and other departments.
It means that the Emergency Operation Center will not have the staff to operation 24/7 in the event of an emergency. It means that Los Angeles will need to ask for help from other cities every time an emergency hits, with the attendant delays and loss of life.
And what does that say about the value our Mayor and City Council and the bean-counters in the CAO’s office place on our lives?
Saving $2,000 per employee by allowing early retirement of qualified and experienced and needed staff members misses the boat when the City does not know how to swim. Certainly, in this case the need for the service vastly exceeds the need to balance the budget by eviscerating an already understaffed department that is essential to the City’s emergency response efforts.
And too often there is not one isolated incident but a cascade of problems and those do not have to be just in Los Angeles; other crises in California and elsewhere can drain aggregate resources.
To double the EMD’s existing budget would take less than $1 per Angeleno, half what many people spend on coffee or the lottery in a week.
A GoFundMe account, anyone?
(The Budget Advocates is 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.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.