They have become familiar faces to city department personnel and labor leaders, have promoted survey participation and Neighborhood Council outreach, and have spent long days and nights across the city crafting their message. On Monday, the Neighborhood Council selected Budget Advocates are going to City Hall to discuss a sustainable financial future with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
The process began in October, as each of the 90+ Neighborhood Councils selected two budget representatives to attend the Mayor’s Budget Day at City Hall.
Attendees listened to presentations and remarks by the Mayor and other city officials. The topics were familiar, a current $63 million budget deficit for FY 2010-11, the need for pension reform, and departments dealing with less resources. Revenues had flat lined and were no longer decreasing, but were not growing.
Following this presentation, the representatives broke out into seven regional planning areas and discussed topics for the Mayor’s Budget Survey and the meeting with the Mayor in March.
Pension and healthcare reform were prominent mentions, as were department consolidation, efficiency, collections, elected officials’ discretionary funds and even the CRA.
This discussion allowed participants to get to know each other and the issues, and at the close of the sessions, two Budget Advocates were chosen to represent each planning area. A feedback loop was also established for the budget representatives to keep their Neighborhood Councils informed on budget issues as they arose.
In the months that followed, the Budget Advocates played an instrumental role in shaping the content of the Mayor’s Budget Survey by choosing topics and expanding outreach to include residents and business people as well as the city employee labor movement.
Nearly 10,000 survey responses reflecting support for maintaining Fire Department funding (60%) and Police hiring (53%), reforming pensions (80%), reducing pay for elected officials (97%) and employee pay and benefits (60%) informed the advocates, as did meetings with departments and labor representatives which brought to light creative opportunities, insight, and a sense for how far the impacted parties might go to bridge the budget divide.
Last Saturday at the Regional Budget Day, the representatives returned to City Hall to hear from city officials and Neighborhood Council leaders about a projected $350 million deficit for FY 2011-12 with similar deficits expected in future years, and the need to bring the best ideas together to maintain core services.
Afterwards, the representatives and advocates once again broke out into their planning areas to discuss regional differences in the survey results and to review topics to be presented to the mayor on March 21st. Having received this feedback, the Budget Advocates spent the rest of the day putting the final touches on the presentation for the mayor and a planned presentation to the City
With survey results and the Neighborhood Councils and stakeholders behind them, Budget Advocate leader Jay Handal said that this year’s group has been a “different kind of committee”. Because they were selected in October (as opposed to March in previous years), they have had more time to dig in and provide more depth. They also plan to produce a physical report as part of their presentation.
Some of the simpler suggestions involve acting upon already available information such as the Commission on Revenue Efficiency (CORE) findings and City Controller audits.
Others will include revoking and not issuing permits to entities that owe the city money, setting up a “fast track” team which might include legal staff to expedite structural and process changes, implementing new technology and establishing and promoting service standards.
With a large percentage of the budget consisting of personnel costs, the discussion would not be complete without reviewing labor issues. The Budget Advocates realize that the city cannot survive by continuing to cut services, but also sees the need to reflect current practices in the labor marketplace.
The group considers furloughs as a short term solution for which the time has passed. Compensation will need to change, but only in conjunction with a stable sustainable budget that does not seek changes annually, and allows for a mutually rewarding future.
Handal suggests a theme of “service before politics” will be woven throughout, and that the committee has sought to put the pieces in place to maintain a productive city workforce and core services. He suspects that many aspects “will not be well received” but feels that this will be an indication that the suggestions are fair and apolitical.
Following this meeting, the Budget Advocates expect to present to the City Council, and will continue to seek feedback from Neighborhood Councils and their budget reps, serve as advocates throughout the Budget and Finance committee hearings, and will soon be posting reports on budgetadvocatesla.com.