Throughout the Los Angeles mayor's race, the city's $1 billion fiscal deficit has been talked about mostly in vague terms.
But on Thursday, the leading candidates were grilled on the city's finances during a debate at California State University, Northridge.
For more than an hour, moderator Austin Beutner, a former investment banker and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's one-time jobs czar, pushed and prodded the candidates over the city's deficit.
How would they overhaul the city's pension system, he asked. What were their plans for expenditures at the Los Angeles Police Department? And what about closing the budget deficit?
"Let's just stay with the math," Beutner sharply told Eric Garcetti, when the councilman strayed from a question and started telling a story about his family's business.
At another point, Beutner challenged City Controller Wendy Greuel's answers on pension reform, including pension spiking. "Let's parse that," Beutner said.
Beutner's scrutiny reflected his own critical attitude of City Hall, which he coined a "barnyard" during his own, brief mayoral campaign last year. But his direct questions also highlighted the financial hurdles facing the city.
The debate, hosted by the Los Angeles Business Federation and L.A. Daily News, came on the same day the city's top budget adviser warned L.A. may lose as many as 500 police officers if a sales tax hike on the March 5 ballot fails.
And candidates Greuel, Councilman Garcetti, Councilwoman Jan Perry, attorney Kevin James and technology executive Emanuel Pleitez were asked how they'd solve the ongoing problem.
"We are going to have to start chipping away," Perry said, responding to a question about the $1 billion deficit - a figure that represents about four years of projected shortfalls.
Some of the candidates, including Perry and Garcetti offered specifics in terms of cutting costs. Garcetti said his goal is to cut the city's health care costs by $50 million by increasing the amount civilian employees pay towards their health insurance.
Currently, 30 percent of employees pay 5 percent toward their health care, but Garcetti wants all civilian employees to pay 10 percent. He also stated he wants to reduce the city's health care premium costs by $10 million to $20 million.
Perry also called for increasing the rate employees pay to at least 10 percent.
In addition to reducing costs, Perry, Garcetti, Greuel and James also repeatedly focused on growing revenues. And while Garcetti and Greuel are both in favor of eliminating the city's business tax, James said he favored reforming the tax.
"I don't agree with eliminating the business tax altogether," James said, who instead called for a flat fee instead of a gross receipts tax.
As she frequently does, Greuel pointed to the $160 million in waste, fraud and abuse her Controller's Office claims it has found through its audits, and said she'd find more savings.
"Has the city done enough to tighten their belt? Has DWP done enough to tighten their belt? Have the other departments done the same?" Greuel asked.
After the debate, Beutner - who had briefly explored running for mayor himself last year - expressed disappointment at the vagueness of some of the candidates' answers. He heard little in terms of proposals to turn around the city's finances, he said.
"They didn't seem to solve the problem ... I am personally looking for more specifics. You would think running for mayor, the second biggest city in the country, they would have a plan. I would love to hear it."