Tony Cardenas was elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 2003, representing parts of the city's sprawling San Fernando Valley. In early March, Cardenas sat down with Government Technology to discuss how the nation's second most-populous city uses technology to strengthen public safety and improve quality of life for residents.
In particular, Cardenas pointed to L.A.'s Jordan Downs public housing project, where a wireless mesh network provides streaming video surveillance for Los Angeles Police Department officers and wireless Internet access for Jordan Downs residents. Cardenas, a former California assemblyman, also talked about his efforts to finance traffic light synchronization that helped tame the city's infamous roadway congestion and about plans for citywide wireless Internet access.
Q: What are your top technology priorities for the city?
A: One is something that our police department has testified is critical in some of the high-crime areas. For example, in Jordan Downs, we have a pilot program with a private company working with the police department. They have two commandments. One is that they have cameras that are already hooked in to the police department, and [officers] can actually watch them from a screen within their vehicles. So if they have a shooting, or a report of rape or other heavy crime, they can turn to those cameras and see the scene before they walk in. They may be going into a scene where someone has weapons, so for the police officer to actually get a bird's-eye view of what's going on in there is a tremendous safety [feature], not only for the public, but for the department.
Now that the infrastructure is there, the second commandment is to have technology and computers available to kids and families in Jordan Downs, which is a public housing facility - one of the biggest and most crime-ridden in the city. They're using the technology for public safety, and at the same time, using that backbone of infrastructure to have technology available so kids become computer literate. ... When you look at the digital divide, they're trying to provide answers.
Q: Can you tell me about other ways you've bridged technology and public safety?
A: Reporting is very important. I was trained as an engineer, and it's important for me to have feedback. Once you get feedback, you can decide whether or not the first investment did happen and it's working the way it was expected.
In addition to that, feedback systems are the backbone of human improvement. A feedback system is a fancy way of saying you take information and then think about it, analyze what you've learned, put it back in the system and get better results. One of my responsibilities that I'm holding the police department and also the technology company accountable for, is they stay on course, report to my IT committee and tell me the progress [of the Jordan Downs pilot].
We're also always looking for opportunities and other beneficial factors, such as making sure that backbone of infrastructure can be used for the community's purposes as well. So it's primarily for public safety, and that's what we use it for. We're keeping our fingers crossed because we hope and expect it will be successful, and if it's proven successful, we want to duplicate [the Jordan Downs pilot program] throughout the city.
Q: In less than two years, you've overhauled L.A.'s business tax system. What did that entail?
A: L.A.'s mayor [Antonio Villaraigosa ] was quoted as acknowledging we had an overburdened city tax system for businesses. We don't rank very well with our neighboring cities - some cities have no city tax for businesses; some have a very minimal tax; we have had one
of the highest.
So I became the chairman of the committee and made a commitment to the L.A. community that we were going to reduce their tax to do business in the city. As a result, we removed close to two-thirds of the city's businesses - smallest businesses - off the tax rolls. Once they grow into a medium-sized business, they would fall into that tax system.
In addition to that, we give special exemptions, for example, to people who work from their home in the movie industry, because a lot of those writers and people who work out of their homes were feeling overburdened. One year they make a good amount of money, and they might not the next year. We're able to give them an even higher threshold of not having to pay city taxes.
Q: Was there concern that by eliminating those taxes, the city would lose much-needed revenue?
A: I was arguing with some of my colleagues about whether this would work, and I had promised them that based on our analysis, if we reduce the taxes on most of the businesses in L.A., we could do two things: One, we wouldn't have to worry about the vast majority of businesses and could focus on proper taxation of the bigger businesses. As a result, we would see a rebounding effect of our tax base and collect more money. People thought that was kind of odd. We actually had professors who explained to us that there is, in fact, an economic phenomenon called the "elasticity effect," and that means (this sounds more like a Republican ideal) that if you reduce the tax burden, you could actually have a healthier government and perhaps more money in your coffer.
We analyzed it and realized that if we get it just right, we would have that effect; with my legislation, we reduced the business tax by $90 million a year, which is tough for government to do. For a local government to have the cause and effect of reducing the amount of money we're going to collect by $90 million ... makes us kind of nervous. But I knew in a short time we would actually have a rebound effect and end up collecting more money.
Sure enough, within a 12-month period, we reduced and eliminated some taxes for most businesses in L.A., and we created certain exemptions. We also took out the tax reporting system for the city that had more than 70 categories; we reduced it to seven. We also eliminated many people from our tax rolls, so we focus on the collection of taxes from our larger businesses in the city, and we had more equity within that community, so fewer people were getting away without paying their taxes. We ended up having a larger tax base a year later than we did the year before.
Q: Can you explain the role technology played?
A: We had to fortify our tax collection system. That's why we had a staggered implementation - we had to reconfigure our tax collection and notification system so that notifications went out on time with the new information. And we had to give the businesses enough time to interpret the new situation with their accountants, so that they could go ahead and properly report.
We had to invest several million dollars into revamping our tax collection system . We did it in a way that we didn't have any glitches; we were prepared for it, and it ended up being flawless. When we simplified our system from 70-plus categories down to seven, we had to not only re-create forms, but because we allow people to report online, we had to have that reporting system upgraded for the city, and we had
to contract and sign a new contract with the third-party provider for our tax collection system.
It was a successful event. It was kind of scary because we had technology that we have to recommit and readjust, and we had [to deal with] the legality of making sure we have proper notification so people couldn't try to get themselves exempt because we misinformed them.
Q: The return on investment covered the cost of implementation?
A: Exactly. Everything was covered within the existing budgets and everything was covered and fortified, and we knew that the elasticity effect would take place. It actually took place a little faster than expected.
Before I became a city councilman, I was a businessman; I had as many as 26 people working for me. I remember those complicated forms; I remember the frustration, and I remember having to pay my county taxes, my city taxes, and my federal and state taxes. I was looking forward to having an honest straightforward system and fewer burdens from our city so that [small businesses] could grow and become more successful tax-paying businesses. So I was motivated by that as a former business owner, but at the same time, I was motivated because I didn't want to be part of the repertoire of people who ran for office who promised reduced business taxes for the city. I made a commitment, and I understood what that commitment meant to businesses because I was [a small business owner] myself. In addition to that, I wanted to be that honest politician who made a claim - who promised I would do something - and actually did it.
When I was in the California State Legislature, I understood how risky it is to make promises of reduced revenue, yet we're going to keep the standard of our funding to the community and all of the things we promised for them. That's when the elasticity research came in, and we understood enough about it to know that is what in fact would take place. All of those moving parts were very important for me to keep my promises as a politician.
Q: How is the city using technology to solve quality-of-life issues, such as traffic congestion?
A: We did a pilot in my district and another couple parts of the city where we synchronized our traffic lights, where we proved that by synchronizing the lights on some of our main thoroughfares, we could reduce the travel time by 15 percent to 20 percent. And we're talking about peak hours, not just the easy times: peak hours in the morning and afternoon. We did that pilot, and once we did it, we realized that the results were actually coming through.
So we used our political clout in Sacramento, and when they put an initiative on the ballot two years ago - a transportation bond - we actually infused in the bond a minimum of $140 million. We had already calculated how much it would cost for us to do that in the entirety of the city in our main thoroughfares. That [bond] passed, so we already have the money in place to go ahead and synchronize lighting through technology that is in place on certain corners of those main thoroughfares. The cameras and digital technology can actually be adjusted remotely.
Q: What other challenges are you facing?
A: We're trying to implement citywide Wi-Fi - and we're hopefully going to be successful, but the model has changed from what we had anticipated - so we can get digital access, digital inclusion to every part of this city ... from the poor parts of the community to the most affluent.
We were skeptical that other cities had bragged about
the fact that they were implementing citywide, but at the same time were still saying, "Wait a minute, the implementation is lagging."
So we announced that we were going to put out an RFP to see if we could get a citywide Wi-Fi, and hopefully we could do it with private dollars and the city wouldn't have to commit its own money. Obviously we would have to have a public-private agreement, and the private provider would have some kind of advantage in providing Wi-Fi privately.
Since we started the process, we realized that every single private provider that has agreed with local cities throughout the country has backed off and isn't moving forward as before. Now we're looking at the possibility of having a public-private partnership where we come to the table with either resources and dollars with the private industry.
One of the beautiful things we have in L.A. is the largest Department of Water and Power in the country. So tip to tip and in every corner of the city, we have hardwired capability to have communications in every home and every business in the city. Our Department of Water and Power may even be one of the components and partners in this future partnership. If we don't do it with them, we're going to be working with our other communication providers such as AT&T, Verizon, Time Warner - possibly have different regional components communicating with each other across jurisdictional lines.
We're still on the road to figure out how to be the first city that is successful in putting together a city Wi-Fi system. It's a tremendous challenge, and again, I had personal conversations with the mayor, and because of my background as an electrical engineer, I said to the mayor, "Look, it sounds pretty good, but there's a reason why nobody has been able to figure it out; there's a reason why every other city that's embarked on this journey is having problems getting to the implementation stage. Since then, every single one has backed off, and now they're having to reconsider how to do it. Their previous agreements don't seem to be coming to fruition."