Cash-strapped Los Angeles city officials are pushing the operators of Staples Center, Dodger Stadium, the Coliseum and several other venues to cough up hundreds of thousands of dollars each to reimburse the city for traffic cops deployed for major events.

The reimbursement demand would end a 15-year practice of providing free traffic control, which was designed to encourage promoters to schedule events in Los Angeles.

As such, the deployment of the traffic cops not only helped prevent snarls around stadiums and concert sites, but amounted to a city subsidy for event companies and venues.

“If we have to cover these costs, we might have to pass those costs on to the event sponsors or promoters,” said Pat Lynch, general manager of the Coliseum Commission. “And that might make them look more seriously at other venues, like the Rose Bowl in Pasadena or the Home Depot Center in Carson, which would be a lose-lose for Los Angeles.”

Since the program was launched in 1994, city costs for the traffic control officers have zoomed from $300,000 a year to $1.4 million as venues such as the Staples Center were added and labor costs increased. Now, with a $400 million budget deficit, city officials have decided that paying for these traffic officers is no longer affordable.

They have started negotiations with the owners or operators of the six venues to have them pay the city for future traffic officer deployments.

By state law, only uniformed city officers can step onto public streets to control traffic, which precludes the venue operators from assigning the task to parking lot attendants or other contractors.

Besides the Coliseum/Sports Arena, Dodger Stadium and the Staples Center, the other venues include the county-owned Hollywood Bowl, the city-owned Greek Theatre in Griffith Park and – most recently – the L.A. Live complex, including the Nokia Theatre.

According to city documents, the city spent $250,000 during the 2007-08 fiscal year deploying dozens of traffic control officers around the Coliseum and Sports Arena for USC football games, soccer matches and various concerts. In that same year, the city spent $480,000 on traffic officers for sporting events and concerts at the Staples Center.

Controversy grows

The issue of city funding of police and traffic services for special events became controversial after this year’s Lakers victory parade and Michael Jackson’s memorial event at Staples Center.

Department of Transportation officials say budget cuts and the cost of special events have drained the money they use to pay for traffic control, and once the budget is empty they will no longer provide any traffic control officers for these venues.

“We’ve had $1.4 million already cut from our special events budget, leaving us about $2.7 million,” said Principal Transportation Engineer Allan Willis. “What’s more, we’ve already spent half of what’s left to cover unexpected special events like the Michael Jackson tribute, and we’re not even 90 days into the new fiscal year.”

AEG Worldwide, the Anschutz Co. subsidiary that operates the Staples Center, the site of the Jackson tribute, maintains it’s important for the city to continue to fund the traffic officers.

“While we are mindful of the recent budget cuts and fiscal deficits our city is facing, we believe it is critical that these necessary services must continue to be provided for events that are significant generators of economic activity and jobs to the city,” AEG spokesman Michael Roth said in a statement.

The Los Angeles Dodgers are taking a more neutral stance.

Spokesman Howard Sunkin said, “We’re going to work with the city, as we always do.”

Willis drafted letters that were sent to the six venue operators in July explaining the situation. “The responses have ranged from outright denial to proactive negotiation,” he said.

To soften the financial blow, Willis said that the negotiations are also focusing on ways the city can cut the deployment expenses.

“We’re also exploring ways to reduce the costs, deploying fewer officers or deploying officers for shorter periods,” he said. He added that the transportation department also performs other services, such as having field crews deploy reversible lane cones at Dodger Stadium or the Hollywood Bowl. The law allows parking attendants to do that, he said.

So far, no agreements have been concluded.

Passing on costs?

Also unclear at this point is how much of the costs the venue operators will pass on to event promoters or, ultimately, concert patrons or sporting event fans.

Coliseum Commission general manager Lynch said that will depend in part on the actual costs. Also, he noted that USC, which plays at least six home football games a year at the Coliseum, has a 25-year lease to play there, while event promoters of soccer matches or other sports usually book by the season or game.

“USC is not going anywhere, but soccer match promoters can and do look at the Rose Bowl and the Home Depot Center,” Lynch said. “If our costs go up and their costs don’t, that puts us at a competitive disadvantage. So that’s why I’m not able to say at this point how much of the additional costs we would pass on.”

Lynch added that the situation is even more pronounced at the aging Sports Arena, which already has lost much of its event base to other venues. The Coliseum Commission oversees operation of the Sports Arena.

At the Hollywood Bowl, owned and operated by the county, the ticket and parking prices have already been raised for next summer, partly in anticipation of traffic control reimbursement. Last week, the county Board of Supervisors approved cost increases of up to 5 percent to cover “increased operating costs.” While prices generally go up a bit each year, this round of increases may also have to cover the cost of reimbursing the city of Los Angeles for traffic officer deployment. In 2007-08, that cost was $300,000.

At the Greek Theatre, which is overseen by the city Recreation and Parks Department, the costs can’t be passed on to the theater’s operator, Nederlander Group, because of a fixed-price contract. However, the department could raise parking prices, Willis said.

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