10 Reasons, or So, Why Los Angeles Is a “City in Decline”

Thursday, January 09, 2014

A new report from movers and shakers in Los Angeles warns at the outset that L.A. is in danger of becoming a “city in decline” and then spends the next 50 pages arguing that it is already there.

The Los Angeles 2020 Commission, chaired by former U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary and L.A. insider Mickey Kantor, produced the first of two reports on the challenges facing the city and possible solutions to them. Time for Truth outlines enormous, complex and intractable problems already vexing public policy planners and the second report will focus on how to fix the mess.

The Los Angeles Times pointed out that the star-studded 13-person commission, convened at the behest of City Council President Herb Wesson, is not exactly a bunch of neutral, civic-minded agenda-less academians.

The co-chair is former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s politically-connected jobs czar Austin Beutner. Kantor, a corporate lawyer, represented Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and may have had some input into the report’s criticism of the city taking eight years to okay a rail yard the company wanted. USC Senior Vice President Thomas Sales, a commission member, may have helped draw notice in the report to the three years the city took to approve a $1-billion development plan by the school.

Los Angeles is “barely treading water,” the report notes in its introduction, as “continued economic decline and impending fiscal crisis” take their toll. “Los Angeles is sinking into a future in which it no longer can provide the public services to which our people’s taxes entitle them and where the promises made to public employees about a decent and secure retirement simply cannot be kept.”

Although the list of problems goes on and on, here are 10 worthy of notice:

1. Poor L.A. The poverty rate is higher than any other major American city. “As the result of two decades of slow growth and stagnant wages, 28% of working Angelenos earn poverty pay. If you add those out of work, almost 40% of our community lives in what only can be called misery.”

2. Big money bolted. Twelve Fortune 500 companies had Los Angeles headquarters in the 1980s. Now there are four.

3. Aerospace, others flew the coop. When Boeing leaves Long Beach in 2015 there will be virtually no Southland activities in an industry it dominated not too long ago. The entertainment industry is also moving elsewhere.

4. Strangled by traffic. The city is the most traffic congested urban community in America and fourth worst in the world.

5. Education stinks. Only 60% of students in the Los Angeles Unified School District graduate and only 32% take the requisite course for to enter University of California or California State University schools. More than 75% of fourth-graders aren’t proficient in reading.

6. No growth during the Great Recession. City revenues have been flat since 2009 and are expected to grow around 1% this year while expenses are projected to increase 5%.

7. Where’s the fire? On-time emergency response by police and fire departments is around 60%, compared to a national standard of 90%.

8. Worker benefits are too generous. Health care and pensions keep increasing. Pensions were 3% of city budget 10 years ago; now they are 18%. The pensions, by and large, substitute for workers collecting Social Security.

9. Crumbling infrastructure.  The city is “dramatically underinvesting” in modernizing the Port of Los Angeles, Los Angeles International Airport and the Department of Water and Power.

10. Budget gimmickry. “City Hall has increasingly relied on gimmicks and one-time sources of revenue to balance its books.” Case in point: LAPD personnel bank their overtime in lieu of cash, allowing the department to keep the obligation off the books.

Dishonorable mention goes to: Lack of government transparency and accountability, bogus “pie-in-the-sky” revenue forecasts, regulatory burdens on small business and decades-old community plans that delay project development.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Report Calls L.A. a City in Decline, Warns of Crisis in Leadership (by  David Zahniser, Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles 2020: Time for Truth (California Community Foundation) (pdf)

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