‘Back to Basics’: Yawner of a Title but Eye-Opener Plan for LA’s Budget!

CW February 8, 2016 – BUDGET DOYENNE – Surely you’ve seen the Mayor’s #SlowJam  video announcing the slowdown expected as a result of the closure of the 101 this past weekend? Masterfully executed with original music by talented students of the Theodore Roosevelt High School Jazz Band, Eric Garcetti is the coolest mayor ever.

Los Angeles is so hip.

The amazing new transportation app? It analyzes your trip by cost, time, or environmental impact. Seriously cool.

LA is aspirational and inspirational and it’s big in so many ways. An extraordinary city in an emergency, LA will put aside its own broken glass to help you with yours.

Los Angeles is noisy and complicated and, yes, there’s traffic and the schools. Yet, still, we love it.

Here is the perfect last line from “31 Things You Only Understand if You’re From LA,” from theHuffington Post (February 1, 2016) — one of so many lists like it:

“#31. When someone brings up the latest ‘New York versus Los Angeles’ trend piece, we just smile.” 

So, “Back to Basics” might seem a little pedestrian for Hollywood. But that is exactly the theme of the City’s FY2015-16 budget — a budget for a “city that works.”

From the Mayor’s FY2015-16 budget message:

The deep cuts made during the recession eroded our capacity to deliver excellent services ‐‐because we were forced to reduce our workforce at the same time we drastically curtailed training and investment in technology. 

My back to basics agenda is about rebuilding capacity to deliver tangible results: a safer, more livable, more sustainable, and more prosperous Los Angeles. 

Is Los Angeles a city that works?

Are there signs that the City is “rebuilding capacity?” Is it safer? More livable? More sustainable? More prosperous?

I live in Riverside now so I offer this unsolicited budget advice from 60 miles east:

  1. Listen to the women and men who do the work. I walked the fourth floor of City Hall for years with a color-coded list of workers’ ideas worth millions in savings, revenue generation — good sensible ideas. The best ideas have come and will continue to come from the workers.
  2. Listen to the customers. Many of the recommendations made by the City’s Neighborhood Councils, particularly the Budget Advocates, are thoughtful, reasoned, and right. One of few discernible recommendations of the Mickey Kantor 2020 Commission is that the City adopt a “Truth in Budgeting” ordinance, requiring, among other things, that the Mayor prepare three-year budgets annually in an effort to increase oversight, accountability, and long-term planning.
  3. Stop the Countification! The County of Los Angeles is not the economic model to which the City should aspire. This includes the current CAO’s reluctance to hire full-time city employees instead over-relying on private contractors and part-time and intermittent workers.

The City of Riverside moves this year to a two-year budget cycle coupled with a new 5-year planning schema. Assistant Riverside City Manager Marianna Marysheva-Martinez explained the thinking behind the move:

“Most governmental entities operate on a one-year budget. Unfortunately, the one-year planning period is just too short, and therefore encourages short-term thinking and discourages long-term planning. With an annual budget process, it is easy for organizations to delay essential expenses for as long as they do not lead to a crisis within a year. This particularly applies to spending on repair and maintenance of vehicles, facilities, streets, street lights and other infrastructure. Unfortunately, Riverside has not been an exception, and over the years has delayed such essential spending – which has resulted in millions of dollars in accumulated unfunded needs, such as facility repairs and replacement. Transitioning to a two-year budget – developed within a five-year context – will allow (and actually force) the City to first acknowledge its significant unfunded critical needs, and then develop a plan to address them.”

The City of Riverside has prepared this cute and informative video explaining the budgeting process and has distributed it widely to the public, including through the app Nextdoor.

Watch Riverside’s budget video – turn down the sound; it’s kinda loud!

What does Riverside hope to achieve by this change?

“The key expectations are to: 1) enhance transparency by publicly acknowledging and discussing the unfunded critical needs and ways to address them; 2) improve long-term planning of needs and solutions; 3) encourage a participatory process in policy, operational and financial decisions by a multitude of stakeholders. On the last point, the City’s budget/five-year plan development process this year, for the first time, includes: 1) internal meetings with each department as well as employees and labor groups; and 2) multiple external meetings with residents, businesses and the City Council/public. Input will also be solicited, accepted and analyzed online through EngageRiverside.com.” 

Was there resistance to the change?

Former Councilmember and LAUSD board member Jackie Goldberg tells my favorite change-in-government joke: “There’s three answers – we’ve always done it that way; we’ve never done it that way; we tried it once; it didn’t work.” Marysheva-Martinez says the only way to make something like this work is with full participation, internally and externally.

Would it work in a larger city?

“The Government Finance Officers Association, a national leader in government financial management, strongly recommends long-term planning. Bond rating agencies generally view longer-term financial planning as a strong sign of fiscal management. In addition, John Russo (Riverside City Manager) and I found both five-year planning and two-year budgeting to be very effective in the City of Oakland (where I was the Budget Director under Mayor Jerry Brown and later Assistant City Manager under Mayor Ronald Dellums.) The system, again, encourages long-term thinking on a daily basis. Every time the City Council makes a decision with policy or financial implications, they must consider the five-year impacts of such decisions. The system would work especially well in a larger city, with bigger issues and needs.”

Russo and Marysheva-Martinez penned an op-ed for the Press-Enterprise (November 18, 2015) advocating for the change:

The city’s new executive management team believes that a two-year budget, prepared in the context of five-year financial planning, is essential to institutionalizing strong and prudent fiscal management within the culture of the Riverside’s government. The two-year budget will increase fiscal prudence, promote program certainty, incentivize bureaucratic efficiency and open the door to new methods of staff accountability. 

Perhaps the City of Los Angeles should look to well-managed, operational, cool cities like Riverside and Oakland for new, good ideas.

Data, information and transparency are all essential.

And a final fiscal word about counting things…

At the beginning of winter, the City of Riverside publicized opportunities to “Adopt-a-Drain,” that is, to select and claim a storm or sewer drain to keep free of debris throughout the rainy season. The website offers up 4800 drains for adoption, minus those already selected by Riversiders who have been provided safety vests, gloves, and instruction for the maintenance of their drains.

This means the City of Riverside knows the precise location of each storm drain and they have a database. Now that is cool.

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