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Norm Ryan Speaks Out On Prop J Utility Tax Cut Victory, LB City Hall's Response and More

(November 20, 2000) In an extended and extemporaneous broadcast interview, LB fiscal reformer Norm Ryan gave his assessment of what City Hall should be doing, chided it for certain things it's done and gently ridiculed some officials for their actions after voters passed Mr. Ryan's Prop J utility tax cut measure by nearly a 70% margin.

In a wide-ranging discussion laced with humor and personal details, Mr. Ryan addressed a variety of issues on Charter Communications' cable TV program "In Your Backyard." He was interviewed by program host and ECO-link chair Diana Mann.

From ELA to ELB

Prompted by Ms. Mann, Mr. Ryan spoke of growing up in East Los Angeles, living for a time in a trailer park, having his father desert the family on the night before Christmas at about age two, moving to LB at roughly age 10 or 11. He has lived in LB ever since, except during service overseas in the Army, and is a resident of the 3d Council district.

Mr. Ryan went on to earn an MBA (in public finance) from UCLA, works for a major securities firm and is the married father of three sons.

"The one thing that I don't think that some of these city people understand when they tackle with some of the residents is, we're going to be here for a while...They may cycle through, they may only have this gig for three or four years and then move on, but most of us, almost all of us, are here for the long term."

When Ms. Mann said some city officials' actions might affect not only their careers but also the community for a long time, Ryan quipped, "Well I'll take my life over their career any day."

Prop J

Mr. Ryan discussed his two year struggle to cut the city's utility tax, which culiminated in the November 7 victory of Prop J by a nearly 70% margin. The measure will now lower LB's 10% utility tax rate to 5% in 1% rate reductions per year over five years. It was put on the ballot by Ryan through the process of laboriously collecting petition signatures.

"If you want to do something outside of the good old boys' network at City Hall, and try to do any kind of reform at all, it takes you, like two years, because those are the only tools left to us."

Mr. Ryan explained, "What we were trying to push for was reform, efficiency in government and the most important was respect for the taxpayer."

Ryan described what it was going up against LB City Hall:

Anytime you go up against entrenched interests you're going to get resistance, and unfortunately, the city tried to create resistance by scaring people, talking about public safety being affected, parks, libraries, things that people care about, as opposed to the things that people don't care about, which is well paid staff, or overly well paid staff. So that was some resistance they created. I think most people had heard the arguments so often that they understood them to be bogus."

Ryan said City services should not have to be cut:

I am a Public Safety [Advisory] Commissioner for the 3d district, and when the first thing I hear out of these people is that we're going to cut public safety, if I truly believed that that was the case, I would never have pushed for the tax cut. I don't believe it's the case. I believe that in many instances you don't necessarily have to cut services.

To those asking what cuts should be made, Mr. Ryan said:

[T]hat's just the wrong question. You don't ask what service you're going to cut. You say how do you deliver services more efficiently. You ask how do we enhance our revenues without oppresing our taxpayer....

And the truth of the matter is, the first politician that tries to cut public safety, libraries and parks needlessly -- and I'll be more than happy to sit there and watch 'em -- needlessly, is going to be out of office, or goes along with them.

If all the projections they were giving us are true, and I've only used city numbers throughout, then this budget, the general fund will grow actually at a larger rate than the cuts that are going to be incurred.

Now expenses have been growing faster, but that's only because they can. If you have money, you spend it. That is what cities, counties and states do. And you create waste but you know you're creating waste. That's capacity to them. That's money that they know at a future date if they need to spend it on something else they want to do, they can reach back, cut waste and shift the money over.

My argument has always been there's way too much waste or way too much capacity and this will give the opportunity to leave core services completely untouched but have to reduce the rate of spending...

Reaction to Councilman Shultz's math

Asked about 9th district Councilman Jerry Shultz's comment at the November 14 Council meeting that only 8% of voters had voted for Prop J, Mr. Ryan said:

That was obviously an attempt to marginalize voter anger and voter frustration, and I would point out to Jerry that yes, it's a shame that my children couldn't vote...[W]e have 210,000 registered voters and 50% of them turned out, and 70% of them voted for measure J...

Ryan on Aquarium, Breakwater, Downtown Plaza

Asked by Ms. Mann for his views on other timely subjects, Mr. Ryan offered the following opinions:

  • Interest offered when Aquarium financing bonds were first sold was needlessly too high and has "saddled the Aquarium with unnecessary debt." Mr. Ryan also indicated he believes initial attendance projections were not realistic. He stressed he doesn't consider the Aquarium a bad thing, but believes the way it was handled was very poor.

  • A study to see if the breakwater is causing erosion is worthwhile and if it proves the "breakwater isn't saving the peninsula, it's actually harming it," he doesn't see why "anybody wouldn't be for doing what needs to be done to correct the situation."

  • Re the downtown LB Plaza project, Mr. Ryan said he found it "interesting" that Councilman Ray Grabinski would propose a public process on Prop J's tax cut modeled on the LB Plaza process. "A lot of these people [who took part in the LB Plaza process] feel duped. If they feel duped, there must be a reason, and I think part of it is the city knows what it wants to do ahead of time. And citizens, you, me, all the activists I know...we all know that a lot of times the city wants to use us as dressing...I think there really was no substantive community involvement, but just the appearance of it."

    Mr. Ryan concluded by stressing that Prop J is about reform.

    "In Your Backyard" airs regularly on Charter Cable channel 3 in LB, Sundays at 6:00 p.m. and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m.

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