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City: Occupy LA costs at least $2.3 million

By Noaki Schwartz and Michael R. Blood
Associated Press / December 23, 2011
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LOS ANGELES—A preliminary report released Friday by the city administrative officer estimates the nearly two-month Occupy LA encampment at City Hall cost the budget-strapped city at least $2.3 million, but officials said the sum is expected to grow by the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

City Administrative Officer Miguel A. Santana told The Associated Press his office requested the cost estimates from various city departments two weeks ago.

The city attorney's office has already said it expects its previously submitted $188,000 estimate to climb significantly.

"This is based on a moment in time," Santana said. "Obviously the numbers are going to grow."

The latest tab adds to costs tallied by cities nationwide that have been dealing with the anti-Wall Street movement. An AP survey of 18 nationwide cities through mid-November found that the protests had cost local taxpayers a total of at least $13 million.

The Los Angeles report requested by the City Council includes an estimate of more than $1.6 million in overtime for police, the Department of General Services and the Office of Public Safety.

But the report notes that the estimate does not include the cost of restoring City Hall park. A rough early estimate of restoring the park to its original condition was $400,000.

At the City Attorney's Office, Chief Deputy William Carter told the AP earlier this week that the agency has spent over $500,000 so far on legal and consulting work, and handling cases involving hundreds of people arrested would likely drive costs over $1 million.

"We are still dealing with Occupy LA. We still have to prosecute these arrests. The job is not over," Carter said.

Councilman Dennis Zine, a former police officer, said he is stunned by the estimate and "had no idea it was going to be that high."

"We're $70 million in debt," he said. "This is just money we don't have that's being expended because of what Occupy LA has done. What they've basically done is cheated taxpayers out of services. I don't know who wins."

City leaders such as Zine had initially expressed sympathy with the Occupy movement and the council passed a resolution praising the "vibrant exercise in First Amendment rights."

Over time, however, critics said the encampment turned the once-lush City Hall lawns into something more closely resembling a homeless encampment with overflowing trash bins and the stench of urine and body odor hanging in the air. The tent city destroyed the grass and damaged trees. Graffiti appeared on statues and some City Hall walls.

Thefts, shoplifting and assaults spiked in the neighborhood, and film productions avoided the landmark site. Local restaurants grumbled about lost business, and weeks of media coverage of demonstrators camped on the City Hall lawn did little to help downtown's scruffy image.

Such complaints contributed to the decision by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to evict hundreds of protesters from the park in a late-night raid at the end of November, resulting in nearly 300 arrests that were largely peaceful.

Councilmembers worried the city opened itself to lawsuits if other protesters aren't granted similar, extended welcomes on public property.

Zine now regrets officials did not enforce city law requiring protesters to leave.

"Looking back on it it's a lesson we've learned about enforcing the laws and rules," he said. "The law is you can't occupy the park after a certain hour."

Occupy activists, however, were unapologetic about the damage. They believed critics were missing the big picture by focusing on inconveniences instead of the broader problems of society and the camp's efforts to raise awareness.

The Occupy Wall Street protests started Sept. 17 with a few dozen demonstrators who tried to pitch tents in front of the New York Stock Exchange. It eventually spread to other cities, including Los Angeles where protests began on Oct. 1.

Villaraigosa initially supported the movement, handing out plastic ponchos one rainy day. As the population swelled in October, he said the city would remain "accommodating" but eventually with overflowing waste cans and hundreds of tents, he said the encampment was "simply not sustainable."

"The worldwide uprising that occupied cities and town squares is one of those uncommon events no one can plan for," he said. "While the city has unfortunately incurred these additional costs in the middle of a challenging budget year, our primary responsibility is to protect public safety."

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Blood reported from Pismo Beach, Calif.

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