March 25, 2004 - From the January, 2004 issue

L.A. Supervisor Don Knabe On The State Budget, MTA, LAX & NFL

As if being a full-time County Supervisor representing a vast swath of LA County stretching from Manhattan Beach to Diamond Bar, and including both of the region's major seaports and LAX, wasn't enough work, Don Knabe wears many more hats. He has assumed additional responsibilities as a representative for Los Angeles in the Department of Homeland Security, has taken the lead in bringing an NFL team to the Coliseum as President of the Coliseum Commission, and now leads the First 5/Prop 10 Commission bringing universal pre-K to the region. MIR is pleased to present this interview with Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe, in which he discusses the challenges he faces in his various leadership roles throughout the region.


Don Knabe

Supervisor, we do this interview the day the Governor announced his budget for the year, a austere budget which has significant ramifications for local governments, cities and counties. What are your initial reactions?

Even with the VLF backfill as it sits today, we can just make it through the year. The significant cuts to local government announced by the governor will impact directly the safety net services counties provide. For us, we are looking at cuts to welfare programs, social services, and, of course, in health care, where we already have a significant challenge meeting the needs of the county. We've tried to put off our budgetary assumptions until we see what those ultimate numbers will be. And, we've tried to put a good amount of money in reserves. We knew we were heading down this track and we have tried to be as prudent and responsible as possible. However, it goes without saying that these are tough times for the county.

The League of Cities and others are trying to place on the ballot an initiative to protect their revenue base. Former Speaker Hertzberg also is putting on the November ballot a Home Rule Initiative to shift more resources from the state to the locals. How do all of these ballot box initiatives square with the agenda and responsibilities you have as a Los Angeles County Supervisor?

One of my biggest problems with the state is the fact that there is so much government by initiative. There is an opportunity for the Legislature and the governor to get over the fighting and try to do the right thing. The challenge local government faces is that the ground rules keep changing. The state needs to let us know what our dollars are and where they're coming from, and we'll try to survive with the laws that you pass.

There are two relevant examples worth noting. The first example is Prop. 98. It sounded like a great deal at the time; everybody loves education. But, nobody really estimated the impact it would have on local government when the state faces tough economic times. The result for the county is that over $3-billion in property taxes are now gone. Everybody talks about ERAF and trying to get those dollars back, but we've never seen a dime of it. At some point, we're going to have to re-evaluate the effectiveness and value of Prop. 98. That's where you see the League and CSAC and the others come together to try to do the same guarantee. And at some point, I think there's going to be a voters' revolt.

Example number two involves the vehicle license fees. Forget what your political philosophy is regarding whether vehicle license fees should be used for any form of social programs, mental health, parks, libraries, or anything else. The Legislature supposedly guaranteed this pot of money to local government. Part of this fight over the VLF stems from the actions of the state that have stripped local government of reliable sources of revenue. As we try to survive the property tax shift, they then took away the other "guaranteed" pot of money in the VLF. That's where the dollar-for-dollar program cuts originate and that's why the locals were screaming so loud. Over the years, most "secure" pots of money dedicated to local government-property taxes and the vehicle license fees-have been pillaged by the state.

First responders are, in many cases, the responsibility of the county. Your district includes the two harbors and LAX, often mentioned targets of threatened terrorism. You've therefore taken a lead role in homeland security. How prepared are we?

Based on my experiences sitting on the State and Local Senior Advisory Commission for the Department of Homeland Security with Secretary Ridge, Los Angeles County probably is one of the best prepared counties in the nation in terms of homeland security and disaster preparedness. This is a good news/bad news scenario. The good news is that we're prepared. The bad news is that our preparedness stems from our vulnerability for floods, fires, earthquakes and riots. The Board of Supervisors continues to push for the delivery of homeland security dollars from the feds to support our local efforts. We're trying to change some of the funding formulas so that it's based on need rather than a per capita basis.

We know the economic impact of our ports as a result of the strike last year. So, it is clear that any kind of disruption at our seaports or at our airports will be significant. We're going to have to continue to spend those dollars in security and, whether we're in a yellow alert or orange alert, we're going to be as prepared as possible. In many cases, like the early warning terror system that the Sheriff's Department has, we were upgrading our systems before 9-11 and have been way ahead of the curve.

What's the role of the congressional delegation and people like you to communicate to the federal government that the Federal funding formulas, which favor rural areas, need to be reworked?

We're taking our message directly to those committees and subcommittees within the Congress that influence budget controls.

It's a fight between the large urban areas and the smaller rural areas. But the bottom line is if you look at what the reality is, the government of the United States is run by rural areas. If you look at the make-up of Congress, if you look at the make-up of the Senate, a majority of those people are from rural America. Their population bases aren't anywhere close to a California or Florida, but they control the votes. I've been on the Hill lobbying and congressmen who don't represent one-third the number of constituents that I do have smacked me around good. Nevertheless, they control the votes, so it's always an ongoing fight.

Secretary Ridge has been very sympathetic to our message, because he understands our exposure. But, again, local government does not wait to see what the federal funding formula is if you have a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. We respond, that's our job.

Moving from homeland security to the NFL; can you, as President of the Coliseum Commission, provide a status report on the Coliseum's bid for an NFL team?

We've been under the radar in this competition instead of getting out there in the public relations campaign with Carson and Pasadena. We did go through the public process on our draft EIR and just finalized the EIR last month, which was historic for the Coliseum. We're probably at least two years ahead of the other venues being considered here in Los Angeles County. From that standpoint, we're ready to negotiate directly with the NFL, be it an existing team or a developer. Every option is available to us now because we have a finished EIR.

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The NFL also has been moving quickly and they've been very impressed with what we've been able to do. The NFL's decision rests on whether they want a football team here by '06. If they want a football team here by '06, the only place they could come is to the Coliseum, because no one else is going to be ready. They're demanding significant changes at the Rose Bowl. And in Carson, they haven't even dug a hole to see if they have methane gas or any other significant construction issues. So, we feel that we're in very good shape to move forward.

Speaking of EIRs, let's turn to LAX. The EIR process for Mayor Hahn's proposed master plan, Alternative D, is coming to a conclusion. What are your reactions to the proposed plan?

At this particular point, I am in opposition to Alternative D. I don't think it's a totally flawed plan, but there are significant issues inside that they're going to have to deal with. And, there are some elements of the plan that need to be done whether you add one more passenger, one more plane, or one more piece of cargo. I think there are significant security issues with the mayor's proposal. And, I have an issue with the one-stop passenger drop-off facility at Manchester square. The city of LA either will be willing to bring the right people to the table – the El Segundos, the County or other entities – or they're just going to be tied up in lawsuits and nothing's going to happen.

You've also spoken out about need for a regional system to handle Southern California's airport needs. But there's been no legal structure to support such system. Is a regional airport authority realizable?

I tried to revitalize the old Southern California Regional Airport Authority, which had a little money in the bank that had gone unspent for a long time. The city of Los Angeles basically boycotted that group and didn't participate, effectively making the organization obsolete. But, that was an organization that had the teeth to do a lot of different things. It included L.A. County, city of Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange Counties.

My purpose was just to bring everybody to the table, including the city of Los Angeles, to determine how can we expand our region's air capacity and geographically distribute the region's passenger demand. I saw this as an implementing agency in the sense of being a facilitator for the transportation network among the various airports. That's such a critical element – moving people. If you have the ability to move the people, then the airlines are more willing to redistribute their flights around the region.

At LAX, there's no way to expand except out into the ocean. Here you have the third busiest airport in the nation, in the most urbanized area in America. It just doesn't make any sense to continue to expand that facility when there are these other opportunities around, including Palmdale and Ontario.

Just to prove to the readers the breadth of your responsibilities, you're also now chairing the First 5 LA Commission, which has taken a pretty progressive stance on universal pre-k and health care access. Elaborate on the First 5 LA agenda and priorities.

The chairman of the Board of Supervisors is chairman of First 5. And, this is the only commission I have ever chaired for which you open up the first meeting and you have hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank. It's phenomenal. My biggest concern is the need to spend that money and how to spend it effectively. They still have a lot of money, but they have spent close to $1-billion in the last five years on pre-natal care, universal pre-school and a host of other health care issues. The commission has come together over the last several years and done a phenomenal job of spending their funds. They really work hard to get the money on the street, and they've done a great job.

How might First 5 dollars best be leveraged given L.A. County's underfunded safety net responsibilities? One of the communities you represent, Paramount, is now engaged, with First 5 & NSBN resources, in collaboratively planning a child-care, park and new school facility. In a built-out county, how do we do best replicate such joint use projects?

The most important thing about First 5 is they don't try to recreate the wheel. One of the key opportunities related to providing universal pre-school and other health care programs is to look at existing public facilities. What are the opportunities to expand a school or a building that's already providing similar services? Is there a way to expand a health clinic and add on to a preschool? They're really looking at using existing facilities, and they have the money to do it, instead of trying to just build a brand new building. Not only is it tough to site a building, but offering a one-stop shop for social programs is a very important initiative.

Let's end with a more abstract question. Representative government seems to be on shaky ground these days. People don't have great expectations for government and don't want to spend more money on it. Where do we go from here? What's the future of local government given all of the constraints under which you are operating?

I don't see the need for any more government, number one. People talk about expanding the Board of Supervisors. I've been out on the stump for a long time, and people ask for more fire fighters, policemen, more libraries, more parks-no one has ever asked me for more politicians. It's about time that we get the message out that we're willing to solve the problems in front of us. One of the great things about the Board of Supervisors is that it really doesn't make any difference whether you're a Republican, Democrat, or Libertarian – we've got to solve the problems for which we are responsible. People are really sick of the partisanship and the bickering that goes on between the two parties at the state and national levels.

In terms of the structure of our government, I'm not sure that we can realistically revisit that. You may see some movement to get rid of the unincorporated areas of the state and perhaps to form more city-county kinds of governments like in San Francisco. However, the most effective reform to me would be to have a nonpartisan government statewide.

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