Where else but in a city as badly run as LA would the proposed closure of a fire station in one of the city’s wealthiest communities stir the passions of residents and threaten to unhinge efforts to erase a $457 million budget deficit, at least on paper.
The battle over Fire Station 69 in Pacific Palisades played out at length Tuesday as the Bernard Parks’ Budget and Finance Committee finalized the mayor’s spending plan for 2011-12 for presentation to the full Council on Friday.
The largest savings, generating $200 million in cost reductions over the next three years, is the one proposed by Fire Chief Millage Peaks who eloquently defended his plan (cao_budget_fire.PDF) before the Budget Committee even as Councilman Bill Rosendahl kept wringing his hands in anguish over his constituents’ fears for their safety.
Fire Station 69 has become the poster child for City Hall’s follies and why the city’s leadership continues chasing revenue numbers downhill even as expenses keep rising.
It is the face of LA’s failure, its hopeless political contradictions, its inability to resolve its budget problems and define policies that move the city forward.
About 150 Palisades residents rallied Sunday at the station and will confront Fire Chief Peaks Thursday night at a community meeting arranged by Rosendahl with the mayor’s budget aide Georgia Mattera and United Firefighters union leader Pat McOsker also participating.
Friday morning, McOsker has called for a massive outpouring of firefighters at the Council meeting to protest what he calls a “crude attempt to silence by intimidation” objections to Peaks’ cost-cutting plan, referring to the threatened alternative cuts if it is rejected.
The Police Protective League has thrown its ample clout behind the firefighters, posting an article “Closing ranks for public safety” on its website that suggests Peaks plan to close 18 fire stations and four ambulance teams is a “matter of life and death.”
“When a brush fire threatens Malibu residents, LAFD Engine Company 69 is the primary first aid the county receives from the city because of its location on Sunset Boulevard near PCH and Temescal Canyon. Closure of this Company will result in 10-minute response time delays, assuming the next truck is not already out on a call – an unacceptable risk for Southland residents,” the union claims.
Rosendahl may be fearful of the wrath of the well-organized community groups in the Palisades but most of the rest of the Council knows their elections depended heavily on the police and fire unions.
They are political heavyweights at City Hall and usually get their way, which in part is why city government is such a mess.
What Peaks is proposing, based on a sophisticated computer analysis of an enormous amount of data, is to permanently restructure the Fire Department based on actual workloads instead of continuing the system of “rolling brownouts” that closed 22 stations and shut down six ambulance teams every day in a confusing rotation that achieved only temporary savings.
What the unions don’t like is more than 300 firefighter jobs will be eliminated through attrition over three years. That’s why the savings are real and permanent. The cops have formed a united front with them to protect the more than $80 million in extra money being thrown their way despite the budget crisis.
In the case of Fire Station 69, one of two serving the Palisades 25,000 residents, it averages less than one call per day, one that can be handled by the other Palisades station or the one in neighboring Brentwood.
The fact is that citywide 83 percent of all Fire Department calls are for ambulances, not firefighters, and most of those are in the city’s poorest areas, not the richest.
Peaks stood his ground before the Council but behind the scenes you can be sure that Janice Hahn and Jose Huizar and Paul Koretz were heeding the warnings of the unions.
So the discussion isn’t about eliminating the structural deficit and the details of Peaks’ plan to protect the public. It’s simply about who has the power to get what they want for themselves.
It’s the story of LA and why things have gone so wrong.