Applying Some Heat


Recently I shared my concerns about the Los Angeles Fire Department’s worsening response times and the impact on the safety of Angelenos, and offered a plan to address the problem.

The response from people throughout Los Angeles has been overwhelming – more than 60,000 have viewed the information we shared.

The response from City Hall has been less encouraging – expressions of “surprise,” blaming others and, of course, the ritual of “audits” and posturing for the media. Insiders have circled the wagons and assert this should not become “political,” implying these issues don’t deserve a public discussion.

Much of the media attention thus far, deservedly so, has been on the tragic consequences for families throughout Los Angeles. The broader mission of the Fire Department, however, is to “preserve life and property and foster economic growth” in Los Angeles. The same economy that provides jobs and a tax base to pay for services like public safety.

In November, a fire destroyed a shopping center in Reseda including an auto parts store. When the business reopened, it could only afford to rehire five of the 15 employees they had prior to the fire. Station 73, the closest fire station, had lost its engine company due to cutbacks and the firefighters on the scene lacked the resources to contain the blaze.

In February, 600 residents were left without power in Brentwood after a fire severely damaged a home. I am told it took 12 minutes, versus the goal of five minutes, for the firefighters to arrive at the scene.

Insurance providers look at the capabilities of public safety when they set insurance rates and most rely on a company called Insurance Services Office, which “focuses on a fire department’s first-alarm response and initial efforts to minimize potential loss.”

The good news is Los Angeles is currently a 2 on the ISO 1-10 scale, 1 being highest. The bad news is the classification was last set in 1987. Could Los Angeles be downgraded?

In 2009, Atlanta was downgraded in rating from 2 to 3 after a review by ISO, its first since 1974. Atlanta had just gone through a round of cutbacks in its Fire Department resources due to budget issues. Georgia’s insurance and fire safety commissioner has been outspoken on the part the downgrade played in rising insurance costs in Atlanta.

Double whammy

Los Angeles can ill afford the double whammy from the loss of jobs like those in Reseda and the impact that increasing insurance costs could have on employers throughout the city.

Let’s take a step back to see how Los Angeles got here. A weak economy and a hostile attitude toward employers have kept city revenues flat since 2008. The city administrative officer forecasts revenues to grow 13 percent over the next four years and costs to grow 20 percent creating a cumulative budget deficit of almost $800 million. It should be clear to everyone in City Hall that city government has to start doing things differently, very differently.

The city of Los Angeles employs 47,000 people, has revenues of $20 billion and invests $4 billion each year in projects ranging from roads and power plants to library books and fire trucks. The city charter states that “management authority shall be vested in the Mayor who shall be the Chief Executive Officer” of this vast enterprise.

It’s often said a city is not a business. While that is true, it misses the point, because a city is a large service enterprise, and many of the same practices well-run businesses use can make a city work better. In business, leaders build and empower teams, find ways to get parties with opposing views to work together, make informed choices, measure progress along the way and, most importantly, get things done.

A City Council member manages a staff of 20 people and a budget of $1 million.

Quite a step up from a staff of 20 to oversee 47,000 employees. City Hall insiders can’t have it both ways – if their experience in City Hall makes them qualified to be mayor, then they should be judged on the record of City Hall during their tenure. Not just with the Fire Department, but on what has happened to the city’s roads, sidewalks, schools, traffic, homeless population, job market, finances and other issues during their long tenure.

Los Angeles faces many challenges to realize its promise of becoming a great 21st century city. Our diversity, creative culture and location at the center of a changing global economy provide the opportunity. L.A.’s next mayor will have to lead city government through an even tougher set of choices, trying to do more with less. We have seen in our Fire Department the results of the decisions career politicians have made. The results are not good.

I spent 30 years in business and one in City Hall. My year in City Hall taught me the city needs to do things very differently if it’s going to start solving problems like those the Fire Department is now facing.

Austin Beutner, a businessman and former first deputy mayor, is a candidate for mayor in Los Angeles.

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