Pound Foolish

L.A. is mulling elimination of the Environmental Affairs Department in cost-cutting move.

I just read something more depressing than James Inhofe on climate change. The city of L.A.’s Chief Administrative Officer’s mid-year budget update and recommendations is a real tearjerker. It offers a $200M plus deficit and a plan to eliminate at least 1,000 general fund employees. And there’s no serious economic help on the way. Not from the state and not from the feds.

The report also augurs more early retirements, a critical issue that has led to an unprecedented brain drain in city government. By May, I may be the last person hanging out at City Hall with a memory of the battle over the Hyperion Treatment Plant.

Just as in years past, there are city departments under attack. The usual suspects are the Environmental Affairs Department (EAD) and the Board of Public Works. I can recall at least two mayors that tried to eliminate these critical government bodies.

It looks like the CAO is going after EAD again, but the Board seems safe … for now.  Today the City Council’s Budget and Finance committee began discussing the CAO recommendations, including the elimination of the EAD. The debate has dragged into the night.

Under the recommendations, many of EAD’s functions will be spread to the winds and end up in other departments, including transportation, planning and community development. Other staff could end up in the mayor’s office, strengthening the staff on energy and environment.

Some six staff positions will be eliminated if the CAO recommendation goes forward. The EAD Commission also will be history. The full City Council is set to vote on the proposals on Wednesday.

With financial problems of this magnitude, budget pain must be spread throughout the city family. However, eliminating the folks working on climate change and a sustainable city plan for L.A. doesn’t make sense. Last I checked, those initiatives were still enormous priorities for the mayor, the City Council and the environmental community.

The danger of a financial crisis is that those in power often slash and burn across the board without adequately looking at priorities and functions. This can’t be allowed to happen.

Whacking EAD doesn’t save the city much money and it jeopardizes some of the mayor’s biggest priorities. If the council and mayor decide to use the budget crisis as an opportunity to reorganize to eliminate redundancy and improve environmental protection, effectiveness and efficiency, then that’s a different matter.

The CAO report recommendation might save some money, but without preserving and enhancing EAD’s critical functions. Climate change action and sustainable city planning can’t be deferred. They are urgent needs.

The public needs to join Green LA and other environmental groups in making themselves heard at City Council. Environmental protection is not a luxury that we can only afford during the best of times.

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