LA City Council takes first step to eliminate possibly thousands of vacant jobs

Faced with lower revenues and greater spending than projected, and with raises anticipated for potentially tens of thousands of city employees in coming months, the Los Angeles City Council on Friday, Jan. 26, instructed staff to begin the process of eliminating potentially thousands of “non-critical” city positions that are currently vacant — to help balance the budget.

In addition, the council directed all city departments to only fill essential positions moving forward, based on a list of “critical” positions identified by the city administrative officer. Positions deemed critical to maintaining the health and safety of the public would not be affected by this action.

While it’s not a full-on hiring freeze, the council’s instruction puts a “choke hold” on other hirings unless a position can be justified, Councilmember Bob Blumenfield, who chairs the budget committee, said in an interview after Friday’s council meeting.

That means some positions may be spared that aren’t paid from the general fund, such as those funded through grants or other sources, and positions that generate revenue for the city.

“Today, we took a very difficult vote. We basically committed ourselves to eliminating vacant positions … but I want to be clear: nobody’s getting fired,” Blumenfield said.

Friday’s council meeting took place at Van Nuys City Hall, the first time the council has met there in four years. The practice of meeting in Van Nuys ended when the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Blumenfield and other officials acknowledged that eliminating vacant positions means that any previous plans to improve current city services or to launch new programs will almost certainly have to be scrapped – at least in the foreseeable future.

In recent meetings with various councilmembers, City Administrative Officer Matt Szabo has characterized the efforts as “right-sizing” the budget to avoid even more painful measures down the road if no actions are taken now.

According to a budget update report to the council, the city’s revenues are $158 million below projections – due in large part to tax revenue shortfalls – while at the same time the city is projected to overspend by $143 million this fiscal year, according to the report by Szabo.

To further complicate matters, the city must make room in its budget to absorb anticipated pay raises for tens of thousands of employees.

Although the pay increases are costly, elected officials who supported the raises say they’re necessary to attract and retain a high-quality workforce at a time when the city has struggled with staffing shortchanges, and to reflect L.A.’s high cost of living.

Last summer, the city approved a new four-year contract with the city’s police officers that will result in $394 million in new expenses over the life of the contract, Szabo said. Those raises will cost the city an additional $75 million in the 2024-25 fiscal year alone.

The city also recently reached a tentative agreement with a coalition of unions representing thousands of other city employees that would result in seven pay raises over the next several years — amounting to about a 24% salary increase per worker.

The city is still in negotiations with other employee bargaining units, including one representing firefighters.

To help balance the budget, Szabo presented a set of recommendations to the council on Friday. Among them was a proposal to eliminate currently vacant “non-critical” positions, some of which have gone unfilled for years yet remain on the books, tying up precious general fund dollars. The city, Szabo said, funds thousands of such positions each year.

Eliminating all currently vacant positions paid for through the general fund would save the city about $283 million, Szabo said.

“The other way to think about that is that we are tying up $283 million of our budget this year in positions that are not providing any service because they are vacant,” he said.

The council voted 13-0 to move forward with Szabo’s recommendation.

As part of its vote, the council also instructed Szabo, in consultation with other top officials at City Hall and with the mayor’s office, to will come up with a list of vacant positions that will be eliminated — and to develop a process for prioritizing critical hirings, among other actions.

Councilmember Imelda Padilla, the newest of the councilmembers, had pledged during her campaign to bring council meetings back to the San Fernando Valley on a semi-regular basis.

Van Nuys, where Friday’s meeting was held, is located in Padilla’s council district.

The meeting kicked off with a presentation and recognition of various Neighborhood Council leaders and community leaders from Council District 6, many of whom said they were pleased to see City Council meetings return to the Valley and that it was “long overdue.”

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