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City trust fund loan to help LAPD staff new jail

February 16, 2011 | 12:01 pm

Elected city officials Wednesday finalized an unusual loan to the LAPD that will reduce the number of police officers taken off the street to staff a new jail.

The Los Angeles Police Department enacted a controversial plan earlier this month to reassign 89 officers from regular patrol work to the detention facility, where they filled staffing shortages that had forced the department to keep the jail mothballed for nearly two years.

Displeased with the idea of taking officers off city streets, city Councilmember Greig Smith hatched the idea of loaning the LAPD nearly $640,000 from a city trust fund.

The money, which is lent without interest and must be paid back over two years, allows the department to suspend cost-saving furloughs of the roughly 315 detention officers working in the jail. Having the detention officers back at full strength means 27 of the officers can return to the field.

The struggle to open the Metropolitan Detention Center has been a long, troublesome one for the LAPD. Intended to replace a badly dilapidated, decades-old jail that fell short of safety and health regulations, the new $84-million structure required a larger staff to operate.

When construction neared completion, however, the city was mired in a fiscal crisis and had imposed a strict hiring freeze and furloughs that left the LAPD unable to open the Metropolitan’s doors.

In October, after unsuccessful attempts to win special permission to make some hires, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck decided he could wait no longer to close down the old jail and announced the plan to pull officers off the street -- always an unpopular move among Angelenos, who see it as a blow to public safety and a waste of the money spent to train the officers.

Beck, speaking at a news conference Wednesday to announce the loan, called the decision “one of the toughest I’ve had to make as chief.” He and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa praised Smith, who chairs the Council’s Public Safety committee, for coming up with the idea.

“Thanks to Greig Smith, I get to feel a little bit better about that decision today,” Beck said.

The loan money comes out of the Sunshine Canyon trust fund, which was created to pay for community-improvement projects around a landfill in Sylmar. Smith, who represents the Sunshine Canyon community and controls the fund, said the money was “surplus funds” that would not have been spent in the current fiscal year ending June 30.

Smith added that lawyers in the city attorney’s office had reviewed the loan and given their approval, saying it did not violate the rules of trust fund since the money will be repaid and eventually be used as intended.

The officials acknowledged the loan will carry the department through only to the end of the fiscal year. Without a more permanent solution, the department will find itself in the same predicament July 1.

Villaraigosa voiced hope that a longer-term fix will be found but sounded a familiar, sober note about the city’s continued fiscal crisis, which includes a projected budget shortfall of $350 million for the coming fiscal year.

“There are tough decisions that lie ahead,” he said. “There are going to be substantial reductions in services.”

RELATED:

Budget cuts or higher parking-lot fees? Tough decisions ahead at L.A. City Hall

-- Joel Rubin at the Metropolitan Detention Center (twitter.com/joelrubin)

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