Expensive Cops = More Crime

The New York Times has a new story linking rising crime in Sacramento to cuts in the local police force. I doubt any reader finds this particularly surprising. Most people assume that putting police on the streets helps deter some crime and results in the arrest of criminals who aren’t deterred, thereby preventing them from offending again.

What the Times doesn’t explain is why Sacramento’s leaders would choose to inflict such a policy on their community. Are they just nuts?

You have probably guessed at least part of the answer. Like the rest of the nation, Sacramento was hit hard by the recession. It was one of the cities at the epicenter of the bursting of the housing bubble. The combination of the two economic blows depressed the city’s property and sales tax revenues, forcing budget cuts.

But another part of the answer is the extravagant level of pay and benefits for police and fire employees.

According to the California State Controller’s database, 168 police employees in Sacramento received in excess of $100,000 in reportable wages in 2010. Most of these also received more than $20,000 in city contributions to health insurance premiums and employer’s assumption of the employee’s share of pension contributions. In addition, 225 of the 446 fire department employees were paid more than $100,000 in wages.

The “why” here is clear. It is difficult for any community to provide adequate levels of police and fire protection when it pays cops and firefighters twice the average wage of full-time workers in the community.

The puzzled readers of the nation’s paper of record would have been well served by this added context.

Mandated Craziness

Over at Zócalo Public Square, Rick Cole, city manager of Ventura and one of the smartest people in California local government, offers a calming counterpoint to media worries about open government. The state budget decision to suspend some parts of the open meeting law won’t lead to city council meetings in basement rathskellers and other secret nasties, he writes—or at least not to any more of them than we’d see (or not see) even when the law’s in full effect. Most reporters won’t agree, but Cole writes about the issue with more nuance and complexity than you’ll see from many journalists, who rarely acknowledge that rules governing openness in government come with tradeoffs.

What Cole doesn’t convey is the pure nuttiness behind the whole discussion. If open government has “become part of California’s civic DNA,” why must we suspend the law that guarantees what everyone says we want?

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The fly—and the elephant—in the realignment soup

Joel Fox, editor over at Fox & Hounds Daily and godfather of the professional defenders of Prop 13, is warning about “The Fly in the Realignment Soup” of Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget. Yes, voters tend to be more friendly to local than to state government, he writes. “But given the outbreak of scandal and questionable judgment exhibited by local officials and reported across the state, the governor may face an unexpected hurdle in selling his realignment plan,” which would transfer more authority from Sacramento to local government.

The fly in the soup is real. The least justifiable public spending in California happens at the local level. Strange, though, that Fox fails to notice the elephant it rode in on: the unintended and unworkable operating system created by Prop 13.

Local governments everywhere have their share of scandal and wasteful spending. But as we show in California Crackup, Prop 13 makes California even more vulnerable to those things. Shorn of their taxing power, local governments ceased to be of much concern to business and taxpayer advocates. That has left local politics to those more interested in grabbing a piece of the spending. And because local elected officials are spending tax revenue they don’t have any political or legal responsibility for raising, they are less careful about how it is used. It’s always easier to waste somebody else’s money.

The scandals that Fox cites, from the City of Bell to Vallejo, have their roots in a system he helped create and now ardently defends. There will be flies in the soup until the elephant is taken away.

Boyarsky: “Brown’s right on redevelopment boondoggle”

At LA Observed, veteran Los Angeles journalist Bill Boyarsky cheers the prospect of ending California’s redevelopment agencies: “Close down all the redevelopment agencies. Let redevelopment beneficiaries like billionaire Phillip Anschutz, who owns downtown’s LA Live and Staples Center, finance their own projects. If we end the subsidies, we can put the money to better use—the schools.”