A readers report: The money game points to budget woes

LOS ANGELES – It was 6:30 p.m. on a Wednesday night in late April. Members of the community were greeted at the door by 10th District area coordinator John Choi: “Welcome to the Money Game,” he said.

Each person was given a symbolic stack of 100 dollar bills and asked how they would spend the money among the 47 city departments. They had 20 minutes to decide how to spend their money.

Where do we begin? How about the fire department? A worthy cause. If I give them $10, I only have $90 left. I put $5 in their box. What about the police department? Personally I don’t like cops much but they were watching us. So I gave them $5 too. Ninety dollars left and 45 city departments still to go: Public Works, the city engineer, the libraries, cultural affairs, general services, and more. Because I like to spend money, I managed to give something to everyone.

After we spent our money, we attended an educational program on the budget process. Los Angeles City Council 10th District Rep. Martin Ludlow spoke to an overflow crowd. This was the third of four scheduled meetings in his district. He told the crowd, “The League of Cities has a website that has a lot of information. One of the things you will find on the site is that 35 cities across America have sent early notification to President Bush of their intention to file for relief from financial insolvency.” It is clear that since Bush took office, every state and local budget is in trouble.

Mayor James Hahn presented his proposed $5.36 billion budget to the City Council on April 20. Zeth Ajemian, a budget researcher, walked us through the key parts of the proposal: a $3 million cut to environmental services, a $3.6 million cut to the cultural affairs department (one-third of their budget), elimination of 295 city positions and a hiring freeze, improved debt management and cash flow, with equitable tax collection. In all, a reduction in city spending of roughly $300 million.

One very controversial part of the proposal was a plan to transfer $60 million from the Department of Water and Power (DWP) to the city’s general fund in the form of an interest-bearing loan. Residents were not happy with this idea. Many residents voiced displeasure with the cuts to environmental services and cultural affairs, too.

So how did the money game results compare with Hahn’s budget proposal? The residents’ spending was near the same as mayor’s in most categories, but they want more of everything.

In real life, community struggles subsequently led to the restoration of funds for the Cultural Affairs, Women’s, and the Status of Aging commissions. However, the layoffs, hiring freeze, and borrowing of DWP funds were kept in the budget passed early in June.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles County is facing cuts in its programs from Gov. Schwarzenegger’s proposed budget. According to Service Employees Local 660, which represents the county workers, California still faces a $15 billion deficit despite passage of Propositions 57 and 58 last March. If the governor’s proposed cuts are enacted, libraries, beaches, parks, animal shelters, child support services, and other public services could be eliminated or drastically reduced. The cuts also threaten L.A. County workers’ 2.5 percent raise scheduled for next year.

If you live in the Golden State call 1-877-415-5155 and tell the governor we are the people and we don’t want cuts to our services.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.