October 30, 1995 - From the October, 1995 issue

Michael Feuer Shares Thoughts on LA’s Fiscal Choices

TPR presents an interview with the newest member of LA City Council, Michael Feuer, who represents the City’s Fifth District, which includes major sections of the West side and San Fernando Valley. Even though a freshman, he has been recently appointed Vice-Chair of the Budget and Finance Committee, Chair of Rules and Elections Committee, and member of the Public Safety Committee.


“I favor an open, expansive conversation taking place with a real openness to all alternatives.”

Michael, as the newly elected Councilperson in the Fifth District, you're free to chart your own course on planning issues. One of the first issues you face is what to do with the CRA's project in Sherman Oaks. What are your plans and priorities?

I am moving to dismantle the project area in Sherman Oaks. Having thoroughly reviewed the necessity of the project area, I've concluded that it's superfluous. 

Instead, we're very focused on moving aggressively on a whole array of earthquake recovery projects. We have placed an earthquake recovery team in my Sherman Oaks office. Comprised of two attorneys, the team will spend the next ten months on large scale and individual constituent-centered recovery work. 

What's most important to us, from both a residential and commercial standpoint, is that we're able to assess and match need with available resources. There are a vast number of resources in the City; yet it's clear, from meetings I've had with businesses and residents, there is little communication between those allocating resources and those to whom resources are available. 

In addition, we've already moved to encumber funds that were to be funneled through the CRA for the Housing Department, for the purpose of rehabilitating condominiums.

As a new member of the Council's Budget and Finance Committee, share with us your view of the fiscal task before you, and the choices you believe the Council will have to make. 

The budget crisis has implications for this fiscal year, even though we have an approved budget. We don't have the luxury of preparing for a review of next year's budget. In the immediate term, we are likely to be reluctant to allocate funds from the reserve toward issues that arise in the current fiscal year. That is a real problem because in the course of this fiscal year, there have already emerged at least two fundamental priorities that deserve real attention from the City Council. 

The first is the potential for some allocation toward health-related matters. The second is combatting gang violence and associated issues. Moreover, we always have the potential for other new high-priority items on our horizon that we have not contemplated for this year's budget and may initiate toward some draw down on the reserve. That creates real tension with the idea that we need to shelter reserve funds for next year's likely deficit. 

The next fiscal year will require us to hone our priorities in a way that perhaps we have not done before. One of my concerns is that not only will we be focusing priorities, but we will likely be identifying some new ones.

Identifying resources for our top priorities compels us to do better at curtailing ineffective or outmoded programs. There is far too little qualitative assessment of the efficacy of the programs to which tax dollars go in the City. As an example, the Community Development Department (CDD) is funding some programs which are very strong; but may also be funding programs that are ineffective. 

We don't really know, because the CDD monitoring process is essentially a quantitative monitoring process—how many people were served and where they live. That quantitative analysis is much too narrow for us to determine how we ought to be spending our dollars. 

You represent the Westside and Valley—middle class and upper-middle class sections of the City. In addition to safety, they're arguably interested in how to maintain their family's economic lifestyle in the City. Has the City an economic strategy that is appealing to your constituents—one you might push in Council? 

There are several important points to make. I'm interested in business recruitment and retention, particularly small business. I'm also concerned that we address the fiscal incentives or disincentives we place on people who reside here. Perhaps we'll address that issue later. 

The City does need to further enhance its business focus. I believe that the City needs to continue to aggressively target startup and small business and make it easier for them to find their way through the City's bureaucracy. It's not just a function of lowering fees; although that's clearly one issue. It's also an issue of trying to eliminate the need for the so-called expediter by making City employees more responsive to business owners' needs. Although large employers are exceptionally important to the region, small business has always been a backbone for the City and we want them to continue to be so. I think that the Mayor's Business Team does some of this, but not on a wide scale, and not particularly for small business. 

In addition, as a regional matter, it's unclear to me that we are identifying new niches that the City ought to be encouraging its businesses to occupy in a regional, national and international economy. 

The Mayor has suggested that he will support no tax increases. Is increasing taxes a consideration for you, or is that off the table for you as well? 

Tough question. I don't think. for example, increasing the business tax right now is a good idea. However, it doesn't leave us with too many choices on the revenue-producing side. 

I do not have in mind imposing a new tax as we are sitting here now; but I don't know that anything can be off the table in this discussion. I favor an open, expansive conversation taking place with a real openness to all alternatives. The Mayor has made a point about looking to departments to identify methods of revenue-raising. While ultimately, those may not equate with taxes in the narrow sense, they can have the same effects, in the form of additional cost for service. 

The Planning Report has run a series of articles over the last few months about the tax credit issue and allocation of tax credit dollars to Los Angeles. TCAC's Don Maddy is in the process of changing the formula that allocates dollars to Los Angeles. You've worked in this area before coming to City Council, and you earlier served for some time on the Housing and Community Redevelopment Committee. What are your thoughts about this new policy? 

I have real problems with it. One of the issues that we confront in metropolitan Los Angeles is higher housing development costs, and rental costs. We have absolutely legitimate housing needs which are underfunded. As a consequence, we need some proportionate share of available funding to get more affordable and decent housing for our population. 

What do you perceive the role of the City to be in promoting publicly financed housing in this time of limited public resources? 

We are going to have to offer significant incentives to private developers to create the affordable housing that we need. I also want to emphasize the need to be doing a great deal more about enforcing existing rules relating to housing conditions. There are at last count, at least 170,000 substandard housing units in this city, apartments that are either infested with rats and roaches, have holes in the wall, or have no hot water or heat. These conditions pervade large parts of our city, and we should do more to enforce our codes. 

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John Molloy is the new CRA Administrator, and must deal with the prospect of a CRA reorganization or merger. What are your thoughts about the proposals on the table for reorganization of existing City Departments? 

The proposals are not well developed. I am not enough of an expert on the structure of the CRA to be able to respond in depth. My interaction with the CRA so far, which is to say, the dismantling of the Sherman Oaks redevelopment area, led me to conclude it was redundant there—its bureaucracy was of very little benefit in light of the work of the housing department, for example. 

The idea of consolidating bureaucracy to reduce waste is obviously very appealing superficially. There have obviously been issues regarding the CRA's efficacy. In some ways, I would be concerned that by taking important housing and social service issues and placing them under the auspices of an embattled agency, at a time when it is a flash point for controversy, agendas that we can all agree on would be subordinated to the politics of who has control over that function. 

In the last issue of TPR, Councilperson Laura Chick discussed the positive responses she has had from neighborhood planning councils. Do you have any thoughts on the value of such councils? 

One of my goals as a Councilmember is to create neighborhood councils, and not solely for the purpose of planning, but also for talking about new safety issues, education and the like. We have a broad agenda, and we would like to include not only developers, business owners and homeowners, but also law enforcement officials, educators and tenants. I think it is important to give people in my district a sense that they have control over their neighborhoods. 

What about the Westwood BID? Is this one of your priorities? 

Revitalizing Westwood is one of the top items on my agenda. It has to happen. I want to accelerate the pace of that process. I want to be working to identify businesses that we can cite in Westwood. Safety is another big issue. My staff and I have been working with the Police Department, and we expect to soon sign the lease for a police substation in Westwood Village. Parking is a big issue, and we will be breaking ground soon for a major parking structure. Good things are going to be happening throughout the district, and Westwood will be an example of this. 

The MTA has recently issued an RFP to look at the Santa Monica Blvd. Corridor between the 405 and Century City. That's a long-festering issue in which the status quo is not acceptable. What is your expectation for that corridor? 

It begins from the same premise you just stated—that the status quo is not acceptable to anyone. Ideally, what will evolve on Santa Monica Blvd. will include better traffic flow and a safer roadway. I think unifying big and little Santa Monica Blvds., and making the street 

into a real boulevard—the esthetics of which provide a signature for the Westside—is a very exciting prospect. 

I'm concerned that as we move forward, we assure the residents of the adjoining neighborhoods they will be able to get in and out of their neighborhoods. That has to be a component of the plan. I want to be sure that the stores along Santa Monica Blvd. don't lose their source of parking, and therefore customers, that they need. All these needs should be brought together to create a good package. 

What about Metro Rail/Red Line West?

In a better world, I am a believer that we need an integrated transportation system in this City that includes fixed rail. In current life, I am concerned that the MTA is at a real crossroads. I am dubious about the likelihood of Metro Rail moving west in the next 15-20 years. The funding continues to dissipate and the political will continues to dissipate.

When we talk about the possibility of the MTA moving down Wilshire, a recent report identifies significant hydrogen sulfide under the Wilshire corridor. I think this new finding means that going down Wilshore is exceptionally unlikely. While I have said that there is real merit in going down Wilshire Blvd from a commercial standpoint, I am never going to support that if it is not safe. 

The concern that I recently stated to the MTA is that, if it's true that the likelihood of a well-developed Metro Rail system in the City is unlikely, we need to be developing meaningful alternatives, much more rapidly than we currenlty are. Getting Westside and Valley commuters out of their cars is a huge priority, and we're not doing it fast enough. 

The General Plan Framework is on its way to Council. Has it become a major topic of discussion yet? 

I think much more needs to be discussed. The General Plan Framework is clearly a hot issue right now. I think that there is a lot of misunderstanding about the document, and I think that the City needs to do a much better job of explaining what the Framework is really going to do—not just in terms of the content, but also in terms of the process. 

There are some general planning principles that are important. In many parts of the City there are commercial strips along major thoroughfare immediately adjacent to large, single-family home neighborhoods. We'll be getting many more people in Los Angeles over the next few years; even as we move toward some mixed-use along major streets, we should be focused on assuring that growth is channeled to locations where the streets and other infrastructure can handle it. We should also be sure that single-family neighborhoods maintain a high-quality standard of living. 

The commercial corridors adjacent to those residential areas need to be viable. But many of our most precious neighborhoods have evolved from a village concept, where the commercial strip is not very dense—a sort of small town atmosphere has developed. Studio City, Sherman Oaks and the Fairfax area, have evolved that way. I want to be certain that as we move ahead we don't threaten some of the best aspects of life for our existing residents. 

Much of the real action regarding the General Plan is assuring that its broad principles aren’t antithetical to the best aspects of the community plans. 

The community plans are the means of specifying how we're going to plan for the future. Many of the homeowner interests in my districts are concerned that the community plans will be eviscerated by the General Plan. I don't believe this needs to be so, and the City should do a much better job of communicating this point. 

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