By Emily Alpert Reyes and Soumya Karlamangla
Some Los Angeles downtowners returned to their cars Thursday to the unwelcome sight of a white envelope tucked under their windshield wipers.
But the faux ticket inside was aimed not at them, but at "Big Banks" for the offenses of "Predatory Bank Deals" and "Gouging L.A. Taxpayers."
In an unconventional attempt to sway public opinion, a group of labor unions and their allies fanned out across the urban center to leave fake tickets on parked cars, arguing that soured deals with Wall Street banks were at least partly to blame for the rising cost of parking tickets citywide.
Tickets are "way expensive -- because the city is trying to balance out what these banks are robbing from us," said Odilia Mendez, an organizer with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment.
Parking is a perpetual bugaboo in Los Angeles: Ticket fees have boomed over the last decade, hiking the proceeds from parking citations from nearly $110 million to roughly $161 million between 2003 and 2014.
Activists for the poor argue that the burden falls heaviest on disadvantaged residents in dense areas. The average ticket now stands at $68 -- an especially steep sum for workers earning minimum wage, they say.
The Coalition of LA City Unions, which represents roughly 20,000 city employees, did not take a formal stand on parking fines during the economic downturn, according to SEIU Local 721 spokeswoman Alisa Rivera.
This year, however, the Fix LA Coalition -- which includes labor unions and progressive community groups -- has sought to hitch public frustration over parking tickets and other city annoyances to bank deals that they say are charging excessive interest rates. Such deals "make New York and Wall Street much richer and our city much poorer," said the Rev. Jonathan Moseley of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Action Network, one of the members of the Fix LA Coalition. "This cannot be tolerated."
Eight years ago, the city entered into interest rate swaps with Bank of New York Mellon and Dexia Credit Local to reduce borrowing costs for $316.8 million in wastewater bonds. To take advantage of what were historically low interest rates at the time, the city locked into a fixed rate of 3.34%.
City officials thought the deal would shield taxpayers from an anticipated rise in rates. But when the recession worsened, interest rates went even lower as federal officials sought to stimulate the economy.
The fake ticket distribution Thursday was the latest in a string of colorful demonstrations pressing the point that the city should renegotiate the swap deals. Labor groups and their allies have also handed out dollar bills to cover new fees for kids at public pools and delivered trash from a South L.A. alley to the doors of a downtown bank.
Heeding their calls, the City Council recently voted to redo borrowing deals that soured during the recession, asking city negotiators to pressure the Bank of New York Mellon and Dexia Credit Local to restructure or terminate the deals at no cost to the city.
But city budget officials warned that terminating the deals would cost nearly $25 million in termination fees. Even if L.A. recovers money from the deals, none of it could go into the fund that pays for basic services such as police or street repairs, City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana said. Instead, the money would be restricted to the wastewater projects associated with the deal.
"They're dealing with apples and oranges," said Councilman Bernard C. Parks, a frequent union critic.
Despite such warnings -- and the fact that the council has already voted to renegotiate the deals -- the unions have continued to focus attention on the banks as a source of untapped funds for city services.
The faux tickets, for example, declared that "at least part of the reason that City Hall has had to raise parking fines is the bad deals it cut with big Wall Street banks."
The exact restrictions on the swap money are not the heart of the issue, said Gilda Valdez, chief of staff for SEIU Local 721. "The bottom line for us is the money needs to come back to Los Angeles," she said.
Besides planting the fake tickets on parked cars, the demonstrators delivered a jumbo ticket to the Hope Street offices of The Bank of New York Mellon and plunked quarters into parking meters downtown, saying they were trying to give Angelenos the "free ride" that they say banks have gotten.
Rivera said they were continuing to spotlight the deals because they want City Atty. Mike Feuer to file a complaint with a financial regulatory agency. She rejected the idea that the protests were meant to step up pressure as the unions bargain with the city over labor contracts.
As bargaining continues, city officials have been seeking concessions from public workers: The budget approved by city leaders earlier this year assumed that workers would not be granted any salary increases for three years. Over the last seven years, members of the Coalition of LA City Unions have received salary increases totaling roughly 25%, according to city records.
The city budget also assumes that civilian employees would pay 10% of the cost of their healthcare premiums, instead of having the option to pay nothing. The coalition has been skeptical of the need for such concessions, pointing to savings already achieved in other ways.
The Thursday action follows earlier efforts to reduce parking fines in general: The grassroots Los Angeles Parking Freedom Initiative has pushed to cap fines for violations that don't affect public safety at $23. Earlier this year, the group vowed to take its campaign to the ballot box if the city didn't change its ways.
In reaction to the simmering frustration over parking tickets, Mayor Eric Garcetti created a working group to reform parking and invited the Parking Freedom Initiative to take part. The working group is expected to present its ideas later this year.
"I'm glad that labor is adding their voices to the chorus of people calling for a change," said Steven Vincent of the Parking Freedom Initiative. Parking has "become a real part of the political conversation in Los Angeles. It's on the table."
(c)2014 the Los Angeles Times