L.A. Residents Feel Pain of Budget Woes

Los Angeles is getting pummeled by economic woes beyond its control. Like so many Western cities, vital services are provided by the county. And L.A. County is $800 million in the red.

"The bleeding has to stop," said County Sheriff Lee Baca. "I can't take another hit in the fiscal year '04 -'05."

The sheriff's department, which provides support for the city's police, has cut 900 deputies and closed two jails. Baca says any more cutbacks will jeopardize public safety.

The Los Angeles Police Department is already suffering from its own manpower shortage, with an immediate need to hire more officers.

"My priority," said Mayor James Hahn at a recent news conference, "is to make our city the safest big city in America."

In these tough economic times, however, the only way to pay for those new officers is to raise fees — in this case by hiking the price for residential garbage collection to $10 a month, a two-thirds increase. And while that is not expected to entirely solve the problem, at least the city has that option.

L.A. County Cuts Services

L.A. county officials are more strapped. "We are at the bottom of the food chain," explained County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. "We have nowhere to turn. We can't even raise taxes if we wanted to because constitutionally counties are precluded from doing that."

And so the county's only option is to cut back services — vital services the city depends on.

Some hospital facilities may have to be closed, warns Yaroslavsky, which would impact every resident of the city.

"Each of us is just a heart attack away from needing an emergency room, or a drunk driver away from needing a trauma center," he said.

Also on the chopping block: services for the homeless and abused children, firefighters, and lifeguards, who routinely pull people to safety at L.A.'s popular beaches.

That doesn't sit well with beachgoers.

"I'd cut back on something else instead of lifeguards. Someone who would save your life, I wouldn't cut back on that," said 15-year-old Michael Harter, playing with his brother in the surf.

State Also Feeling the Pain

But the choices are slim and getting slimmer.

The state of California, hard-hit by the dot-com collapse and an energy crisis, has a deficit of more than $30 billion. When the state finally passes its budget, more drastic cuts are expected, especially in education. In Los Angeles, that will mean more students in each class, less training for teachers, and cuts in every program.

L.A. Unified School District Superintendent Roy Romer says there are no plans for firing teachers.

"We're trying to protect the classroom," said Romer, "but let me tell you, it's a very, very difficult time. And California doesn't fund its schools very highly anyway."

From schoolchildren to seniors, residents are going to feel the impact. In the words of County Supervisor Yaroslavsky: "People who need help at a critical moment may not get it. I don't know who that somebody will be. It may be you. It may be me. But the odds are there, plain for everyone to see."