THE sad reality of lean times is that luxury items must go. Until the financial picture improves, no more nights out on the town. No more twice-a-week yard service. No more designer clothes. No more HBO.
The same holds true for businesses and governments, which must save their diminished cash reserves for the basics to get them through until the economy picks up. The trick, though, is distinguishing between a basic necessity and a luxury - a feat made all the more difficult by politics.
This is the predicament in which the Los Angeles city government - like many others - finds itself in at the moment as it works to scale back its costs to deal with a smaller revenue stream in this fiscal year and the next.
But one thing that the City Council and the mayor must understand is that the young neighborhood council movement is not a luxury.
As part of a new budget proposed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa earlier this month, the city department created to assist the development of the neighborhood council system, the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, will be axed. DONE's functions will be folded into the larger Community Development Department and the staff and money for overseeing neighborhood councils will be considerably smaller.
While the move has justifiably raised concerns among members of the city's 90 neighborhood councils, it is not a death knell for the grass-roots democracy movement. Or, at least, it doesn't
The bureaucracy of DONE wasn't always a friend to the neighborhood groups of this city over the past decade. Without the interference of an agency solely concerned with policing it and under the control of the City Council and Mayor's Office, the grass-roots movement might actually find it easier to flourish.
Voters created the voluntary neighborhood council system in 1999 after a politically disaffected citizenry started using words like "cityhood," "independence" and "secession."
City Hall was not welcoming to the NCs in the first years of their growth, finding ways to stymie their voice or limit their involvement in government affairs. But eventually, with the help of a few champions in the City Council, the neighborhood councils found their role in city government as the champions of nearly 4 million Angelenos who don't have the time or inclination to negotiate with City Hall. On their behalf, the elected members of the councils brought the voices of their neighborhoods to City Hall - and raised those voices when they perceived an abuse of government.
This kind of democracy is not a luxury item. It is as essential to a functioning Los Angeles as sidewalks and police patrols. And though the municipal apparatus for the system might shrink, the city's commitment to the neighborhood councils must not. Both the NC members themselves and the elected officials must continue to keep the movement alive and growing.