Day-to-day quality of life issues, long-term community planning and infrastructure would improve if unincorporated East Los Angeles were to become a city, according to members of the East Los Angeles Resident Association (ELARA) board of directors, the group leading the incorporation effort.
So far, most of the debate has focused on a study detailing the area’s financial state, but a deeper discussion of the issues related to the area becoming a city is needed, ELARA members told EGP during a recent interview.
Yes, money is an issue, but so is having a say in how the money is spent. Residents should at least get a chance to vote on whether incorporation is a good idea, the board members told EGP.
Later this month, the Los Angeles Local Agency Formation Commission (LA LAFCO) Commission will decide whether it will recommend the LA County Board of Supervisors place East Los Angeles’ incorporation question on the ballot, or vote to stop the process.
“ELARA will not settle for anything less than the people voting,” said Alberto Palacios, ELARA parliamentarian.
The commission will decide whether it believes the area has enough of a financial base to be self-supporting. A Comprehensive Fiscal Analysis (CFA) required by law, and paid for by ELARA, detailing the area’s revenues and expenses was released in September. It showed the area could face a sizeable multi-year deficit should it become a city.
ELARA disagrees with many of the study’s findings however, and is deciding whether to seek an independent audit by the State Controller, which comes with a $25,000 price tag and an Oct. 17 deadline.
While much of the attention has so far been focused on the CFA’s projected deficit and fears of cuts to law enforcement and business taxes increases, ELARA says revenue neutrality negotiations—the terms of incorporation that sets the percent the county collects or gives up in property taxes and sales tax—could give East LA the upper hand.
ELARA has met with County CEO William Fujioka to discuss issues such as “over payment” for law enforcement, management of Belvedere Park and other revenues sources and cost saving options. If they are satisfied with the Fujioka’s response, they will not seek a review, they told EGP.
ELARA says it asked Fujioka for a “very fair share” of property tax allocations since the county has many large tax-exempt properties located in unincorporated East Los Angeles. ELARA President
Benjamin Cardenas compares this to annexation, saying one way to take away revenue-generating sources is to have them annexed, the other is to make them tax-exempt.
The group also asked for a fair accounting of East Los Angeles’ share of Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), federal infrastructure grants, and Prop 172 funds that are earmarked for public safety.
ELARA’s board members said the CFA is difficult to understand, and they suspect many of their critics have not read it in its entirety. They said residents should read the study for themselves and ask questions, and think about the benefits cityhood would have on East Los Angeles as a whole.
The benefits are more than just numbers on a balance sheet. There is a lot to be said for having city council members who live in the area and are sensitive to the area’s quality of life issues, according to ELARA. They can fight to protect residents from air pollution, or be a place where residents can take their grievances, ELARA said, citing as examples changes to street-sweeping parking rules made by the county without first consulting local residents.
“To me it’s simple why I want East LA to become a city. It’s the day-to-day things that impact our lives,” said Palacios, who helped get this incorporation effort started in his Garfield High School government class.
“David Vela, (East L.A. field deputy to Sup. Gloria Molina) nice guy, but he doesn’t live in East LA and Gloria Molina, nice lady, she does a lot for East LA, but she does not live in East Los Angeles. It’s not the same living where the problems or frustrations are, and the agitation when it happens. It’s different when your own government lives right there, when they are your neighbors. They’re the ones who have the power to do it and, to me, that’s as basic as it gets: power at the local level,” Palacios said.
“There is no general plan, no city manager looking out for the quality of life” in unincorporated East LA, Cardenas said.
Responding to their critics’ claims that they haven’t done enough outreach in the community, the group — made up of un-paid volunteers with full-time jobs, families and other responsibilities — said others need to take some ownership and ask themselves what they can do.
“If this community isn’t running in the black, why is that? It is not acceptable that this community is in the hole. Who is responsible to make sure this community is thriving? If you’re a stakeholder, what are you going to do about it? If you’re a community leader, take a little responsibility and help outreach …” Cardenas said.
Just getting the CFA done was a major victory, they said. Now residents and the county have real financial data about East LA, which was not available before. While the study has found a structural deficit, it now gives the community a basis to create an economic recovery plan, the board members added.
They say a locally elected city council could put together a budget that stimulates the local economy and includes local businesses incentive programs, like redevelopment and enterprise zones.
“Being a city is the only way to go. It’s the only way to improve economics…” according to ELARA Treasurer Gustavo Camacho, director of a local business group.
Accepting the excuse that the area is “too poor” is condescending and paternalistic, and whoever says East LA doesn’t have leadership is living in the past. Those who say East LA’s city council will be corrupt are insulting the community, Cardenas said.
Too many people underestimate East LA. The Latino buying power is no joke, but many residents have to leave the area to make purchases. The area has also lost human capital. When East LA’s brightest students return from college they move next door to nicer communities—including the cities of Montebello and Monterey Park. A city could help turn that tide around, promote opportunities and East Los Angeles as a cultural destination, said ELARA’s board members.
East Los Angeles is a brand, it is recognized around the world. ELARA’s website gets hits from every continent on the planet, said directors Ana Mascareñas and Kristie Hernandez. “People know about us, but we have no formal voice,” Hernandez said.
Read this story IN SPANISH: Formar una Ciudad Sería lo Mejor, Dice Grupo de Residentes del Este de LA 
While some people don’t get the connection between local government and quality of life, the group says the two are related.
Businesses continue to operate illegally because the county makes it too hard and too expensive to get required permits, said Camacho. In turn, business owners who can’t show they’ve been in business can’t get a business loan.
Many of the difficulties local businesses face could be improved and streamlined with local planning and community development departments, he said.
For example, a permit to put up a sign for 60 days can cost less than $100 in neighboring cities, but in unincorporated East LA it costs closer to $1,000. “Any legit business sees benefits [to incorporation],” Camacho said.
Cardenas told the story of an aspiring restaurant owner who has spent five or six years trying to open, following the rules: At this rate, it could take less time to start the City of East Los Angeles, he said.
They point to recent infrastructure improvement projects on Cesar Chavez, City Terrace and Whittier Boulevard over the last three years as proof that the cityhood movement has already raised the bar.
Several of ELARA’s executive board members—including Cardenas, Vice President Diana Tarango, and Hernandez—have been, or are currently employed by an elected official.
They say their first-hand experiences fueled their desire to incorporate East Los Angeles and empower residents to create positive change and have a real voice.
Hernandez said they feel “voiceless” with no local government or formal pipeline where they can express their needs.
ELARA has lobbied for cityhood in Sacramento and Washington D.C., where they said the response has been positive.
When members of Congress make appropriation requests for projects back home, they are usually acting on requests from city officials, but no one does this specifically for unincorporated East LA. If money is approved for the county, there is no guarantee the funds will actually come to East LA, said Cardenas, who works for U.S. Rep. Grace Napolitano.
“When I’m working, it’s part of my job to advocate for the community or to advocate for a representative [former Sen. Gloria Romero], yet I go home to my community and I don’t have a local government … these things just kept adding to the fact that I didn’t have a voice,” Hernandez said.
The group speaks highly of Molina, but notes that she is termed out and unincorporated East LA is just 6 percent of her district. It’s not only Molina making decisions for East LA,, but all five supervisors who have a say, they added.
Residents in East LA have been criticized for their low level of civic participation, but they have never really been given an opportunity to engage, the board members said.
“We are trying to mobilize a community that for 30 years has been under a very paternalistic type of approach where the status quo is better: ‘What we give you should be used to’ … ‘We give you crumbs, you should be happy with it, don’t ever think of the potential.’ But now we are saying wait a minute, no…” Cardenas said.
“Incorporation is likely the best way to improve the civic infrastructure of East Los Angeles,” says Mascareñas, who notes that if East Los Angeles becomes a city it would be the 10th largest city in LA County.
Important upcoming dates: The 30-day period to challenge the accuracy of the CFA by requesting a review by the State Controller ends at 5pm on Oct. 17. If a State Controller review is not requested, LAFCO has tentatively scheduled a public hearing on the issue for Oct. 26. If the review is requested, the public hearing could be moved to Dec. 14.
During the public hearing, the LAFCO Commission could decide whether the City of East Los Angeles is feasible and could recommend that the County Board of Supervisors place incorporation on the ballot for a vote.