Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti's first proposed budget calls for hiring 140 firefighters and the start of a sweeping overhaul of the city's 911 dispatch system, part of a bid to speed the response to hundreds of thousands of calls for help each year.
The revamped dispatch operation, outlined Monday by the mayor's office as it presented an $8.1-billion spending plan for the coming fiscal year, would unify separate police and fire emergency call centers and gradually replace some uniformed firefighters with lower-paid civilian phone operators.
The proposal is the latest effort to address studies finding that the Los Angeles Fire Department has lagged behind national standards for dispatching rescuers to those needing emergency medical aid and suffered from repeated breakdowns of an aging computer system that manages calls. Last month, a city-funded consultant called for a series of management and technology reforms at the department, including some of the changes Garcetti is proposing.
Garcetti said his budget, the first to provide a road map for his "back to basics" agenda, would expand library hours, add building inspectors and provide for a modest increase in road repairs. But he delayed for one year the implementation of his plan for cutting the city's business tax — a key part of his agenda for improving the economy.
The spending plan signals that, even with better than expected tax revenue and after years of cuts, the city remains on shaky footing. Garcetti acknowledged the financial constraints, saying 2014-15 will be "a transition year" devoted to restructuring city operations.
"We're making a down payment on our future," he said. "And so this first year, the gains will be modest."
The city's general fund, which pays for basic services, would grow from $4.9 billion this fiscal year to $5.1 billion under the proposed spending year that starts July 1. While tax revenue is increasing as the economy improves, most of the added income is going to cover increases in city employee pay, pension costs and healthcare expenses, said City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana, a high-level budget official.
The Fire Department is a major target of the mayor's restructuring efforts: Garcetti is seeking more than $1 million to upgrade the technology used to handle 911 calls. That step, mayoral aides said, would be the first in a multiyear effort to combine the police and fire dispatch operations — a plan that could face strong opposition from the firefighters union, which has considerable influence with members of the City Council. Lawmakers must approve a final budget.
Currently, 911 calls for fires and medical emergencies are first answered by civilian call takers at an LAPD facility and then passed on to a separate LAFD facility downtown. There, sworn firefighters working round-the-clock shifts — some of them licensed paramedics — interview callers and decide which rescuers to send.
"Seconds matter when people call 911, and eliminating that extra step of a transfer can make a difference," said Yusef Robb, a spokesman for the mayor. "The ultimate goal is to have cross-trained personnel who can handle a fire call, a police call, a medical emergency or any sort of 911 call."
The specifics of the staffing changes have to be worked out, Robb said. But the expectation is that some firefighters and paramedics would remain in the consolidated call center to handle the most severe medical emergencies.
New York City struggled with a similar effort to combine dispatch centers. It took eight years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to move police, fire and medical call takers to a single location, only to have a city review conclude that the departments still operated separately and often asked duplicative questions.
Councilman Tom LaBonge questioned whether a consolidation here would "result in the kind of improvement the mayor is looking for." And Fire Capt. Frank Lima, president of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City, said his union would fight efforts to switch to civilian call takers.
"Bottom line is that when my mom is calling 911 and having a medical emergency, I want her talking with an experienced paramedic," Lima said.
Garcetti's proposal represents a sharp change in position. During his campaign for mayor, he opposed staffing the dispatch center with "civilians who have never been in a firetruck." On Monday, Robb said the mayor's office had "taken a harder look" and is ready to pursue at least some hiring of civilian medical dispatchers.
The mayor also has had to postpone plans to cut the city business tax, which he frequently portrays as an impediment to economic growth. That initiative figured prominently in his inaugural address last year and surfaced again in Thursday's State of the City speech. But the idea has drawn resistance from council members, including the mayor's allies.
On Monday, Garcetti said the city would not be able to afford any immediate reduction in the tax rate. He called instead for a three-year, $45-million reduction in the tax collections, beginning in 2016.
City officials said the cuts would apply to a group of businesses that include lawyers, financial planners, engineering firms and other professional services. By 2018, such businesses would have a tax rate of $4.25 per $1,000 of gross receipts, down from the current $5.07, according to the proposal.
"Because it's still a tough budget year, we thought it was the responsible thing" to delay the business tax cuts, Garcetti said.
One advocate for a lower tax rate voiced dismay at the gradual pace of the reductions.
"Are we disappointed there's no immediate relief? Yes. Are we disappointed about the amount of relief? Yes," said Lloyd Greif, chairman of the city's Business Tax Advisory Committee. "This is clearly a step in the right direction, but it's a baby step. It doesn't go far enough."
Garcetti's budget also provides $20 million to repair broken and buckling city sidewalks. Officials budgeted $10 million for the current fiscal year, but none of it has been spent so far because lawmakers are still weighing how to allocate limited funds while facing a legal challenge over the damaged walkways.
The recommendation to hire 140 firefighters would help offset the effects of attrition in a department that saw its sworn workforce shrink by roughly 300 or nearly 10% in recent years.
Parking fines would remain the same next year, but the mayor's budget calls for a new $1 entry fee for the city's swimming pools and a $1 boost in zoo admissions, from $18 to $19 for adults. Those efforts were criticized by the Coalition of L.A. City Unions, which said Garcetti should have gone after fees charged by Wall Street banks.
"Instead, the city continues to turn to L.A.'s working families and dwindling middle class to make additional sacrifices, including imposing fees that may rob families of participating in some city recreational activities," the group said in a statement.
©2014 the Los Angeles Times