Ever since the passage of Proposition 13, California cities have had to tie their budgets to sales tax receipts. This explains why city officials are such shameless boosters for big box stores, redevelopment zones and auto dealerships - and why the sharp drop in consumer spending reported this month has California's city managers sweating.
The uncertainty of single-source funding did little to curb spending however, especially on police and fire. After all, anti-crime campaigns win elections and police and fire unions know how to sell effective slate mailers to candidates. Like most of us, city councils chose instant gratification over prudence. They signed off on huge pension obligations and salary increases, knowing any pain wouldn't be felt for years to come.
So how will cities contend with falling revenues - as car sales slow, retail dips and redevelopment grinds to a halt? Few voters are clamoring for fewer cops and few cops are willing to take big salary cuts. In Michigan, where the economic meltdown is more advanced, law enforcement agencies are banding together for form "multi-jurisdictional task forces." From the Detroit News:
"The wave of the future is to make the most of what you have by joining forces," said Michigan State Police Detective Sgt. Ken Walker, who served as task force commander at that time. "At the time of the activation, each city contributes their manpower and time and effort. When you get focused people organized, you've got a lot of investigative power."
The story goes on to say there is a nationwide push to increase the number of such task forces. However, the story does not talk about grant funding or seizure laws (one of the reasons law enforcement officials like task forces is it provides opportunities to get federal grants and broadens the territory and gives everyone a share of seized assets). It also ignores questions of oversight and accountability. Unlike a city or county police force that reports to an elected body, task forces often operate under the radar.
Which brings us back to LA Impact, a multi-jurisdictional task force formed by the Los Angeles Police Chiefs Association. In 2004, two open-government experts sued to force LA Impact's governing board to open its meetings and documents to the public. Four years later, the board has hardly budged - in part because no one (media, I'm looking at you) is really paying attention.
Since cop stories are all the rage in the ever-shrinking MediaNews empire, hopefully this trend - if it hits California's shores - will get the notice it deserves.