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Next LA Mayor Faces Grim Budget, Likely Labor Woes

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(credit: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

(credit: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — For all their squabbling over fealty to union bosses and ethical lapses real or perceived, the two candidates who could succeed Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa agree on this: City Hall is in trouble.

“Government in Los Angeles is broken. Paralysis rules,” says Wendy Greuel, the city controller who could become the first woman to hold the job. To her rival, Councilman Eric Garcetti, “It’s not just our sidewalks that are broken, it’s the system.”

Grousing about ineffective government is nothing new in the sunny city of nearly 4 million, where crime is historically low but residents live with knotted traffic, struggling schools and a municipal bureaucracy seen as indifferent to those it serves.

But the May 21 runoff election arrives at a vexing time for the city’s $7.7 billion budget — there simply hasn’t been enough money to go around.

Streets are “filled with cracks and potholes and sidewalks that are uprooted, some a foot-and-a-half off the ground,” laments John Walker, who heads a neighborhood council in Studio City. “It’s a matter of money. All of our services have been cut.”

Despite the high stakes, the race has been a mostly low-drama affair between two government regulars who remain indistinct figures to many residents. In a city known to yawn at local politics, turnout is expected to be sparse — perhaps only one in four voters will go to the polls.

The budget has been a central issue and the outlook is not encouraging.

Bankrupt Stockton and other California cities are in worse shape but Los Angeles is in “a perilous fiscal state,” warns Austin Beutner, a former investment banker and deputy mayor who dropped out of the race last year.

Spending is projected to outpace revenue for years, and rising pension and retiree health care bills threaten money that could go to libraries, tree-trimming and street repairs. Villaraigosa, who exits July 1 after an uneven eight-year run, has urged his successor to try to block a 5.5 percent pay increase for civilian employees while looking warily at future salary jumps.

Reopening a labor contract won’t be easy.

“A deal’s a deal,” says Bob Schoonover, president of Service Employees International Union Local 721, which represents 10,000 city workers. “The mayor signed a contract and we expect the city to honor it.”

The city’s recovery from the recession has been slow — unemployment remains in double digits — and businesses complain about government red tape that strangles growth.

Beyond the budget, there are other problems. The Los Angeles International Airport is often dinged for being dirty and poorly run. Emergency response times are suffering. And too many schools remain drop-out factories with low test scores.

The candidates’ refrains about broken government are somewhat self-critical whether intended or not, since both are fixtures at a City Hall long dominated by Democrats. Garcetti, 42, is a former Council president, while Greuel, 51, did time on the Council before changing jobs.

Among his proposals to get the budget in line, Garcetti wants many workers who now contribute nothing toward health care to chip in, including those at the Department of Water and Power. Greuel’s would slice the mayor and Council budgets by 25 percent to save over $6 million and cut back funds spent on Wall Street advisers and health care.

The two liberal Democrats occupy so much similar policy turf that they’ve been dubbed “Greucetti.” Instead, the race has become a duel over character issues as well as a referendum on who is closer to politically powerful public unions often criticized for landing generous raises and benefits.

Garcetti’s commercials have labeled Greuel “DWP’s mayor,” a reference to the Department of Water and Power, whose workers are financing ads to help install her at City Hall. Average employee pay at the agency climbed 15 percent over the last five years, the Los Angeles Times reported recently, while the city struggled to stay in the black.

Greuel’s attack ads hit Garcetti for a fundraiser organized by a developer who she says once served prison time for fraud. “Eric Garcetti: In it for himself,” a narrator states grimly.

They are also different in style. Garcetti, the son of a former district attorney, has a polished manner that speaks to his resume as an Ivy Leaguer and Rhodes Scholar. Greuel fashions herself as a soccer mom and often speaks of her roots in the city’s suburbanish San Fernando Valley, where she’s lived most of her life. A former Clinton administration official, she’s arguably the establishment pick, with endorsements from House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and former President Bill Clinton.

In a televised debate Friday, both promised to improve rutted roads and traffic, like so many candidates before them.

Garcetti promised to be “passionate” about street paving. Greuel pointed to the city’s congested Westside, where traffic is so bad “you’re a prisoner in your own home.”

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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