“The easiest thing would be to have the unions work with us to reduce salary increases.”
That’s what Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told the Daily News Tuesday in trying to explain why he wanted to take $90 million out of our pockets and reduce various services to us.
Unfortunately, the mayor didn’t do “the easiest thing” — in fact it’s the only thing — which is to confront the problem that the city pays its workers too much and gives them benefits that are too costly.
L.A. has arguably the nation’s costliest municipal workforce and the most coddled with civil service rules that make it almost impossible to fire people or even lay them off. The result is mediocrity, and lackluster performance is rewarded while creativity and energy are punished.
This isn’t an anti-union screed. I’ve been a union leader. I believe unions are vital to balance out the power of corporations and create healthy work environments. This is about how L.A.”s public employee unions — with help from big money special interests like developers, contractors and lobbyists — own our elected officials.
Instead of confronting the real problem, the mayor took the same old route that City Hall has taken for too long when there’s financial problems: Screw the public! Raise taxes! Cut services!
Antonio knows better, he knows what has to be done. He knows that he and the City Council just approved whopping pay raises to city employees in the face of a weakening economy. And he knows that the people aren’t organized enough to give him the political room needed to confront the problem without gambling with his own ambitions.
That’s our fault. But it’s his and the rest of the city’s leadership that they don’t have the courage to stand up for what’s right, to privatize functions that can be done cheaper and better outside of government, to bring the unions and other special interests in line.
For example, private companies could fix the broken streets and sidewalks faster and cheaper than the city does, and actually reduce the 75-year backlog that leaves taxpayer liable for millions of dollars in lawsuits every year. Rather than breaking the social contract and charging the public the full cost of home garbage collection as a subterfuge for paying for more cops, the city could let residents contract with the many private firms at lower cost, even organizing whole neighborhoods to bargain for discounts.
We need City Hall to focus on reducing crime, getting rid of the gang menace, improving the public transportation system using jitneys, bus lanes and other low-cost measures.
I’ve told Antonio more than once that many voters liked the idea of a punk from East L.A. who wanted to be somebody in the mayor’s office because they believed he’d stand up for the people. But as much as I like Antonio personally and believe that he would respond if there was a groundswell of public support for radical changes to make the city better, I’m sad to say what we’ve got for the most part is Jimmy Hahn with a smile and a charming personality.
The community is waking up over new development rules that will destroy their neighborhoods and disenfranchise them, to the failure to come down hard on gangsters and criminal illegal immigrants, over the worsening congestion on streets and freeways, over political rhetoric without an action line.
I still hold out hope that Antonio will seize this moment of crisis and be the one who finds the guts to do the right thing for the city and its people. But the clock is ticking and things are going from bad to worse.