Shine the Light on LA’s Unbalanced Budget

LA WATCHDOG--The process for developing and approving the City’s annual budget is not transparent because it does not allow Angelenos to have any meaningful input on how the City will spend our hard-earned money. Nor does it allow us time to review, analyze, and comment on the operational, financial, and policy issues that are contained in over 1,500 pages of mind-numbing figures.  

The City Charter requires the Mayor to submit his “proposed” budget for the upcoming fiscal year beginning July 1 to the City Council by April 20.  After a series of orchestrated meetings of the Budget and Finance Committee where “visitors” are limited to a minute or two of public comment and then some behind the scenes back and forth between the Mayor and City Council, the final budget is “adopted” by June 1, as required by the City Charter.  

There is very little difference between the proposed and adopted budgets, in large part because the budget has already been negotiated in the bowels of City Hall by the Mayor, the City Council, union leaders, and special interests without any input from Neighborhood Councils, interested citizens, and taxpayers. 

A far better and more transparent alternative would be to follow the State’s policy of introducing the upcoming budget on January 10.  This will allow for significantly more time for Angelenos to review and analyze the budget and the budget memos of specific departments, to attend budget related meetings of the City Council committees charged with overseeing the City’s many departments, to provide input to the budgets of specific departments, and to get a better understanding of the policy decisions related to the budget. 

City Hall will tell us that this is not possible given the time constraints.  But if the State with a $200 billion budget can manage to develop a budget by January 10, the City with a less complicated budget of $9.8 billion should be able to do the same.  

[It is also important to remember that the City’s primary responsibility is public safety (police and fire) and infrastructure (streets, parks, trees, planning), not education (LAUSD), mass transit (Metro), or social services, welfare, public health, criminal justice, or jails (County).] 

Under the current system, the Mayor issues his policies and goals in August and September.  City Departments are then required by the City Charter to submit their budget memos by January 1.  It should not be a problem to move this date up by 30 to 60 days which will allow the Mayor’s budget team and the City Administrative Officer, with input from the City Council, ample time to prepare the budget by January 10. 

If this year’s budget was balanced, and if there was no Structural Deficit, and if there were no unfunded pension liability, and if our streets were properly maintained, the current opaque budget process might be acceptable.  But the City’s finances are a mess and Angelenos deserve greater transparency into the City’s budget and finances.  

Let the sun shine in!

(Jack Humphreville writes LA Watchdog for CityWatch. He is the President of the DWP Advocacy Committee and is the Budget and DWP representative for the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council.  He is a Neighborhood Council Budget Advocate.  He can be reached at:  lajack@gmail.com.)

-cw