L.A. City Council approves Mayor Karen Bass' budget, cutting 1,700 vacant positions

LOS ANGELES, CA - December 13, 2022: City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield right, talks with staff during LA City Council meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield, right, said the council approved a "bare-bones" budget on Thursday. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles City Council signed off on Mayor Karen Bass' $12.8-billion budget on Thursday, cutting 1,700 vacant positions and engaging in a back-and-forth over police spending.

On a 12-3 vote, the council approved a spending plan that eliminates the positions at agencies responsible for animal shelters, public works, transportation programs, cultural activities, maintenance of city buildings and many other services. The cuts are not expected to result in layoffs.

The reductions were needed, in large part, to cover a series of pay increases for much of the city workforce — both police officers and civilian employees, including gardeners, clerks, mechanics, custodians, librarians and many others, according to the city's budget analysts. Those raises were negotiated by Bass and the council over the past year with the unions that represent those employees.

"There's no sugarcoating the reality that we face next year," said Councilmember Bob Blumenfield, who heads the council's five-member budget committee. "Services will remain stagnant at best, because we will be operating under a bare-bones budget."

Councilmembers Nithya Raman, Hugo Soto-Martínez and Eunisses Hernandez — who occupy the leftmost end of the council — all voted no, voicing dismay over the spending reductions.

Hernandez, who represents part of the Eastside, expressed frustration that about one-fourth of the budget is going toward the Los Angeles Police Department, even as other city agencies are being asked to make do with less. She blamed the new round of cost-cutting on the council's approval of a four-year package of raises and bonuses for LAPD officers, which is expected to consume an additional $1 billion by 2027.

"I cannot vote for a budget that adds funding to an already overfunded department, while at the same time cutting $2.5 million from after-school programming," said Hernandez, an advocate for shifting money out of law enforcement and into community services.

Council members did put a stop to some of the reductions proposed by Bass. They preserved about 400 positions that had been targeted for elimination, more than half of them at two agencies: the Department of Recreation and Parks and the Bureau of Street Services, which is responsible for the upkeep of city streets, alleys and sidewalks.

During a flurry of votes on proposed amendments to Bass' budget, the council also restored some funding for senior meals and took a step toward saving four vacant positions in the fire department.

A second budget vote is scheduled for next week. After that, Bass will have one week to sign or veto the document, which covers the fiscal year that begins on July 1.

Zach Seidl, a spokesperson for the mayor, said Bass is "grateful for the council's strong leadership" on the budget. In a statement, he said the mayor's office would "continue the urgent work of bringing thousands of unhoused people inside, making Los Angeles safer and delivering critical services for Angelenos."

"We will also continue hiring in critical areas so that city services continue to improve," he said.

The budget provides $185 million for the mayor's Inside Safe program, which has moved more than 2,700 people into hotels, motels and other forms of temporary or permanent housing. (Of that total, nearly 700 people — about 25% — have returned to homelessness, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.)

The council's debate over law enforcement spending comes at a time when the LAPD is continuing to shrink through attrition. The department has lost about 1,200 officers — a reduction of 12% — since 2019, the last full year before the outbreak of COVID-19.

Bass' budget provides funding for the hiring of 574 officers in the upcoming fiscal year. If every dollar is spent, the LAPD would be left with 8,733 officers by summer 2025, based on the city's projections for retirements and resignations.

That would represent the lowest staffing at the department since 1996, when Mayor Richard Riordan was in his first term.

At one point during Thursday's meeting, Soto-Martínez attempted to shift $34.7 million allocated for police hiring into the city's "unappropriated balance." Such a move, if approved, would have required the council to cast an additional vote in the coming months to spend the money allocated for police hiring.

Soto-Martínez, who represents Echo Park and Hollywood, argued in favor of holding back the funds, telling his colleagues that recent recruitment numbers show the LAPD is unlikely to meet its hiring goals.

"We know they're not going to fill those positions," he said. "I believe it is not the best use of our taxpayer dollars to continue to put money into that account."

Hernandez sided with Soto-Martínez, saying the LAPD should not receive the hiring money until it meets its recruitment target in each Police Academy class.

"We're not saying they can't have the money," she said. "We're just saying, show us the receipts of the classes, and then we'll give you the money for that."

The council sent that proposal to the budget committee for more deliberations, with Raman, Hernandez and Soto-Martínez on the losing end. Hernandez later came back with what she called a compromise measure, asking her colleagues to shift a smaller amount of police hiring funds — $13 million — into the unappropriated balance.

The council voted 11-4 to send that concept to the budget committee as well, over the objections of Hernandez, Raman, Soto-Martínez and Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson.

After the meeting, Council President Paul Krekorian defended the focus on police hiring, saying L.A. is now "the most thinly policed big city in America." The raises were needed at the LAPD, he said, to prevent the department from losing officers even more rapidly.

"The bottom line is, people want more police in order to fight the crime they see on their streets, in front of their kids, every single day," he said. "And if we had not changed the compensation of our police officers, this [staffing] number would have continued to decline even further."

Blumenfield, the budget chair, acknowledged that the various employee raises had made the city's budget outlook much more difficult. Council members knew they would be "painful" when they approved them, he said.

"We made that choice," he said. "We realized that inflation had gone up quite a bit in the last couple of years. Our workers' pay hadn't kept up with that. We were going to make deals with our workers that would stabilize our workforce for the next several years."

Councilmember Tim McOsker, who voted in favor of the budget, also defended the pay increases.

"The most valuable thing we have is our people," he said, "and we're investing in our people."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.