If there’s a sentiment that Mayor Robert Garcia conveys any chance he gets, it’s that Long Beach is, in a word, “booming.” But it isn’t just the mayor who’s saying it – in recent meetings with local real estate agents, developers and property owners, Garcia said his perceived forward momentum of Long Beach’s economy was echoed by the professionals who see growth happen from the ground up, when businesses move in or when land is purchased and buildings begin to rise from forgotten parcels.
The consistent theme that has thus far marked Garcia’s tenure as mayor is this: Long Beach is going places. If you don’t believe it, he would likely urge you to look a little closer at the fences lining vacant lots across the city. See the signs attached to them? Those are renderings of the future: hotels, apartments, retail, senior housing, libraries, artistic space, and, of course, a civic center.
Mayor Robert Garcia and his staff are pictured at the Bike Share Station on The Promenade in Downtown Long Beach. From left are: Elizabeth Bigham, intern; Maria Banegas, administrative services manager; Abigail Mejia, field deputy; Daniel Brezenoff, deputy chief of staff; Sharon Weissman, senior advisor to the mayor; Mayor Garcia; Mark Taylor, chief of staff; Rhonda Love, executive administrator and mayor’s scheduler; Tim Patton, senior administrative deputy; and Ryan Murray, innovation deputy. (Photograph by the Business Journal’s Larry Duncan)
The excitement Garcia feels for his home city is also taking shape in intangible ways. Incomes and home values are rising. People are shopping more within the city’s borders, based on increasing sales tax revenue. Unemployment levels have recovered from the Great Recession’s highs.
If that’s not enough cause for the mayor to be positive on Long Beach, there’s the matter of Measure A – a sales tax increase that the mayor tirelessly campaigned for. If the results of the June election were any indication, this much is clear: the majority of voting residents in Long Beach put their faith in the mayor’s promise to use the funds on infrastructure projects and to restore public safety services. As he tells it, this vote of confidence will result in investments that will protect the future of the city.
The Business Journal has conducted annual Q&A interviews with elected mayors of Long Beach every year since 1988. In his third annual interview – the first having occurred right after his election in 2014 – Mayor Robert Garcia discussed a number of issues with Publisher George Economides, Senior Writer Samantha Mehlinger and Staff Writer Brandon Richardson: the city’s minimum wage proposal, the budget, Measure A, public safety, affordable housing, real estate development, proposed marijuana regulations, education, the city charter, implementing U.S. customs service at the Long Beach Airport, climate change, homelessness, and other issues of concern to Long Beach business people and residents alike.
– Samantha Mehlinger, Senior Writer
Minimum Wage Decision
LBBJ: Let’s start with the minimum wage, since a city council discussion is scheduled. Do you think we’re going to go with the state version?
Garcia: We’re definitely going to align with the state. I think the question and the discussion we’ll have is when we align with the state. There is a strong interest to align with the state, so whether we align with the state at the end of the yearly cycle that council has laid out already, or whether we align with the state before that, is the discussion we will have.
LBBJ: The chart we have [comparing the city versus state versions] shows that Long Beach is going to be about a dollar more. Doesn’t the city want local businesses to have a level playing field with all the other cities?
Garcia: Absolutely. That’s why I think that we will align with the state. It’s a matter of when we end up aligning with the state.When you look back at why the state’s wage schedule is the way it is, it is in large part due to Long Beach being a little bit more responsible than what had happened before in other cities. If you look at L.A.’s way, they’re about a year ahead of us. Then we went in with something a little bit more moderate. And the state, once a lot of cities acted, went in as well. And they came in with about a year behind us. So I think there is agreement that we’re going to raise wages. I think it’s a matter of when we align with the state and not if we align with the state.
LBBJ: Our ordinance says [on] January 1, 2018, its $12 an hour.
Garcia: That’s right.
LBBJ: That’s for 26 or more employees. On January 1, 2018 the state’s at $11 an hour for that group. That’s a huge difference.
LBBJ: So why would we not want to be the same as all the other cities in the state so we’re competing equally?
Garcia: We’re not the same as all the cities in the state.
LBBJ: We realize there are a couple that are different. San Jose is different, L.A. is different.
Garcia: There are a lot that are different. Actually, the state is a whole patchwork of different wages right now. So L.A., Oakland, San Francisco, Long Beach, San Diego are all on different schedules than the state. Even the county’s unincorporated [areas] are ahead of where we are.
LBBJ: We don’t understand why the council would want to put our businesses at a disadvantage.
Garcia: The council’s intention for raising the wage was to try to bring balance and recognize the fact that wages have stagnated over time, which is why they did the wage increase in the first place. So I think the discussion we’ll have now – first of all, not all cities are going to align with the state. . . .
LBBJ: Well most of them are.
Garcia: I actually would argue that most of the cities are not going to align with the state. Large cities – I mean Los Angeles, cities in the Bay Area – they’re not going to align with the state. There has been no indication that they’re going to do so, and they’re going to have a schedule that will be more aggressive than the state permanently.
LBBJ: But the Bay Area is a little bit different because the cost of living is much higher than down here.
Garcia: Well look at the County of Los Angeles. A vast majority of the county – all the unincorporated cities and the City of Los Angeles – has not yet indicated that they are going to align with the state. So if Long Beach ends up aligning with the state, which I think we should, we will be the largest city to align with the state and the county.
LBBJ: It seems you’re going to get negative feedback from the business community saying you’re going to be paying a dollar more per year ahead of the state’s schedule. We’ll see what happens.
Measure A Sales Tax Increase
LBBJ: You must be pleased with the passage of Measure A. What do you think are the expectations from residents?
Garcia: I think the expectations are that we spend the money where we said we’d spend the money. And I think when you tell residents that you’re going to spend the money on infrastructure and public safety, and when you take the additional step of telling residents exactly where you’re going to spend it – which I was very clear about it in the first two investments being South Division restoration and Engine 8 restoration – and then you go the extra mile of publishing a map of what streets are going to get fixed and what projects.
LBBJ: How will the citizens oversight committee for Measure A function, and how often will it meet?
Garcia: They’re going to have their first meeting, from what I understand, in the next couple of weeks. Obviously that’s out of our office now and the city management staff is putting that together. I want to say that they’re going to meet that first couple days of September, I think. I think they will meet at a minimum, as often as all other oversight committees meet, like the ones at the college and the school district. So those meet about four or five times a year.
LBBJ: That’s not much.
Garcia: I would expect that at a minimum they meet that often, but they might meet more.
LBBJ: And these are open to the public?
Garcia: All open to the public.
LBBJ: Is it similar to the council where you have a three-minute comment period, or is that up to the committee?
Garcia: That’s up to the committee. Every committee will set the rules according to the Brown Act and what they decide.
LBBJ: We notice, in the proposed Fiscal Year 2017 budget, you’re using Measure A funds to keep from cutting $2.2 million in the police department and $900,000 in the fire department. That’s $3.1 million in Measure A funds. We don’t remember a discussion that Measure A funds could be used in that manner. What would have been those cuts?
Garcia: It’s personnel.
LBBJ: It’s all personnel?
Garcia: Absolutely. If you look at the way the budget is structured, if you read the Measure A documents, the ballot language and what we’ve said – and it’s actually been in other publications during the campaign as well and I’ve talked to it – Measure A is for public safety and infrastructure. It’s to enhance and maintain public safety services. We always knew there was going to be a deficit, obviously. You know, the city does proportional share budgeting.
LBBJ: Yes, the budget manager explained it to us. They’ve been doing it for years.
Garcia: Forever. If you look at this year’s budget, there’s a deficit. We were planning on a deficit.
LBBJ: $4.8 million.
Garcia: Right. Better than what we thought. It was initially going to be $7 million and now we’re at $4.8 million. So of that, you’re still seeing [proportional share] cuts from departments. . . . So the library, parks – all those departments, as part of that deficit, they’re all taking a cut. What’s not taking a cut [by applying Measure A funds] is public safety, because essentially what we would have done is cut five more officers and cut three more firefighters.
LBBJ: In the second year of the tax, starting January 1, 2018, what’s to keep in the city from saying the proportional share cut for public safety is $10 million or $15 million?
Garcia: It’s not. We already know where the budget is going. It’s not $10 million. So what’ll happen next year on police and fire is, if everything works out the way I expect it to, is we’ll add additional police and fire service. We’re going to continue to be able to actually grow. The combination of the growth in the economy, the sales tax [revenue] increase that’s already happening separate of Measure A, and Measure A is actually going to grow police and fire. We have not added one net police officer since 2007. We have not added one net firefighter since 2007. This is the first year that we’re actually adding net bodies in to police and fire.
LBBJ: That’s the eight police officers?
Garcia: It is eight patrol officers, a command staff, I think it’s a crime analyst specialist. I think there are 10 or 11 in the unit, but it’s eight patrol officers, absolutely. And on the fire side, it’s 12 firefighters to man Engine 8.
LBBJ: We understand there are two police academies in this budget and one next year.
Garcia: That’s right.
LBBJ: Those are pre-Measure A. Management is hoping to add close to 90 officers – partially to replace retirees, lateral transfers and so forth. You could end up with as many as 860 police officers a year from now.
Garcia: Yeah, but not permanently. Every year we have our net budgeted number, and then we have what we may have any given moment depending on attrition. So it’s always about trying to manage to that number. Right when we get a class through, our number [of police officers] spikes, and then it starts attritioning throughout the year because we’re losing all the retirement officers. Remember that every cop we hire today is less expensive than a cop that’s retiring because they’re under a different pension system. So every year that goes by, our pension liability decreases. That is good for the city. So retirements and new recruits is long-term financial stability for the city.
LBBJ: Have you had any pushback from residents who supported the tax increase when they heard it’s only going to be eight police officers being hired during the first year.
Garcia: Not at all, because I told people in the community exactly what the restoration is going to be. When people said, “What are you going to propose,” I said, “I am proposing the restoration of Engine 8 in Belmont Shore and [LBPD] South Division.” And I said that at every single community meeting I was at. And I said the rest of the money is going to be put in to infrastructure. So I haven’t heard that. Now, would I have loved to have brought in 30 police officers? Absolutely. But we can’t afford 30 police officers. And people don’t understand what the loaded cost is of having that level of personnel.
LBBJ: The South Division you’re restoring, doesn’t that work out of the downtown police station, the headquarters?
Garcia: It used to be in downtown headquarters, absolutely.
LBBJ: So it’s going to be separate?
Garcia: They’re going to restructure it a little bit. It’ll go back to the way it was before. . . . It’ll be the same building –
LBBJ: In the headquarters?
Garcia: In the headquarters. South Division will be there. The difference in the division patrol system of course is you have all your patrol officers checking in to that location. That’s where the calls come out of, that’s where the cars are coming out of. . . . Right now, the PD headquarters building is being used as administration. As you know, the jail is there. There is some community relations staff in there. But the patrol unit piece is not happening in that building, which will change.
LBBJ: We’ve heard from quite a few people who are concerned about crime such as petty theft. . . . In fact, the crime statistics say they’re up 18% through June of this year compared to last year. That’s a hefty jump. And it’s citywide. It’s not in any one district. The other numbers that jumped out at us, were robberies are up 16% and rapes are up 13.5%. We were startled when we saw those numbers. That’s why we ask if people have said anything about the number of police officers, because all we’re hearing is, “We supported Measure A because we’re going to get more police. We need to cut down on the crime.” So you haven’t heard any of that?
Garcia: When you say heard of that, of course what you hear all the time is, “We want more police officers.” But I think what’s important to know is that I campaigned very clearly what we would spend the money on in the first year budget. And I said it over and over again. And that’s what we’re doing. So what we put out there is what we’re putting into the budget. And we’re talking about the first year. We have to be smart about growth. Are we going to end up next year with more officers? Yes. But we’ve got to ease into that growth. This is a temporary 10-year revenue measure, and we’ve got to make sure we can afford it. I also have to remind people that I know it’s harder to understand, but every dollar spent on infrastructure is like you’re spending $4. We have to make that long-term, one-time investment in infrastructure. And if we don’t do it, our problems with policing and firefighting are going to be dramatically worse 10 years from now because our city will be falling apart.
LBBJ: As you pointed out too, infrastructure does help reduce crime.
Garcia: Absolutely. It’s a huge reduction. When people say, “We want more cops,” I say, “This is the first time we’re adding cops in almost 10 years. So I agree with you and we’re doing it.”
The other thing that we’re doing, which I think is important, is we had years with no police academies. We have only had police academies now for about maybe three years or so. All those police officers, that first year of those rookie cops coming out, that first year of patrol, they’re finally getting into the system. They’re finally out in the street patrolling. So we have a flood of new police officers coming into the force right now, which is very positive.
Every [crime statistic] that you just gave me are being told to every single mayor of every big city up and down the State of California. So it is a statewide challenge that we’re facing. And we’re fortunate that we’re not in as tough of a position as some other cities are. But it’s still a big challenge. So we’re going to continue to put the resources there and continue to work it.
LBBJ: What’s going to be the first thing to be done on infrastructure – the first Measure A-funded project?
Garcia: It’s in the budget. If you open up this year’s budget, there’s both the map as well as the entire list of everything happening in year one. It’s all off of the map that we presented to the community during the campaign. So it’s a variety of projects across the city.
We’re doing exactly what we told the public we would do. . . . There’s going to be a lot of first things. We’re going to be paving a lot of streets. We’re fixing and putting in a lot of new tot lots and playgrounds for kids and families. The senior center. All sorts of things are going to happen. My plan is that the map that we presented to the community is exactly what we will do. That’s the commitment we made and we have to stick to it.
LBBJ: Are you waiting until the tax money kicks in to start these projects?
Garcia: Some things you are able to get ready for, but for a majority of this stuff we actually have to wait until we have the funds, obviously, because we don’t have the funds currently. In some cases, some departments might have the flexibility of anticipation and can flex. Others will have to wait. But from a street point of view, you’ve got all the streets here for year one and all the projects are on the back [referring to a printout of the budget]. It’s a lot of fire station and library improvements. It’s a lot of upgrades to parks. . . .
Filling Positions Within The City
LBBJ: We wanted to talk to you a bit about city positions and how those are filled. For example, we understand the current city clerk was hired over other city employees within the department although she didn’t have experience in running elections. We do understand it’s a city council-appointed position. But what’s the thought process – how are positions filled?
Garcia: Well, the city clerk position is a very different hiring process than every other position. So the city council, the voting member body, hires two positions only: the city manager and the city clerk. That is done through a process that goes through the city attorney, through the council. They interview, they ask the questions, they have the back and forth, and then [the person] is selected on a majority vote.
LBBJ: Does the HR department oversee all this?
Garcia: HR is absolutely involved. But at the end of the day, the decision of hiring the city manager and the city clerk . . .
LBBJ: What about the screening? Does HR do the screening? Because, for the city clerk position, you had over 30 applicants and we can’t imagine the city council talking to all 30 people.
Garcia: I think HR absolutely helps with the screening. But the city council looked at a lot of applicants.
LBBJ: But doesn’t HR recommend the top five or 10 so the council doesn’t have to go through all [the applications]?
Garcia: I think the city council has access to everyone who applies for the position. And the city council looked at many applicants for the city clerk position.
Items Related To The City Budget Beyond Measure A
LBBJ: Are you confident the city has budgeted wisely for the price of oil for fiscal year 2017?
Garcia: The answer is yes, because we’re not pricing it very high. The city used to evaluate oil in the $60 to $65 range. Oil is fluctuating, so it could be as low as $30 or $35. It could be as high as $40. But we hope that oil goes higher, but we’re not going to budget on a hope. So I think it’s better to budget more conservatively on the price of oil. If oil exceeds our expectations, that’s great, but it likely won’t. So it’s better for us to stay more conservative.
LBBJ: We assume the city is seeing increases in revenue from property taxes and, as you mentioned earlier, sales tax.
Garcia: Yes, absolutely.
LBBJ: [Hotel] bed tax, probably.
Garcia: Listen, Long Beach is booming on the economic front. This morning [August 19] I was with a group of 30 realtors – some of the top realtors in the city. Yesterday I was meeting with a group of developers. I met with a group of property and apartment owners just a few days ago. The consistent theme is this overarching idea of optimism in the economy, in growth, in development, in home values, and in household income. And it’s not just a feeling; it’s actual fact. We are incredibly excited about that. We’re doing a lot to support that, and I think a lot of what we’re doing is – there’s a great synergy between what we’re doing and the economy. And you can see it. I don’t think there has ever been this much optimism and excitement about what’s happening, for example, in the development sector in downtown.
We’re going gangbusters right now. And a majority of what we’re building, by the way, is residential, which is exactly what we should be building if we want sustained economic growth downtown.
LBBJ: All nine city unions are negotiating their contracts, so where is the city going to find the money for inevitable pay increases?
Garcia: Obviously I can’t discuss what’s going on right now at the negotiating table, per se. I would say generally the discussions are ongoing. I don’t know that we’re anywhere near any sort of resolution on those discussions. And I think that anyone who looks at the city budget can see that the city is not awash with cash and all these extra dollars. So any conversations that we have in the future regarding additional support for employees will have to come from a position of being a modest conversation that’s based on the reality of the budget which is [that] there isn’t a lot of room. We didn’t put in, in this budget, dollars to give everyone raises because we can’t afford it.
LBBJ: Can you tie raises to the price of oil?
Garcia: I don’t know about that. I think that oil really should be a one-time commodity and spending. I think there’s no question that anybody, whether you’re a cop, whether you’re a news person, whether you’re a business person down the street, all employees, regardless of whether you’re public or private, at some point, I think, are looking for advancement and for their work to be rewarded. So that’s a conversation we will have, but there is no plan right now for a huge shift in that because we just don’t have the resources. But we are discussing it and, if we can do something in the future, we’ll look at that.
LBBJ: Was it intentional that all nine contracts end about the same time?
Garcia: No. All these contracts are done, as you know, on different schedules. Some people have three-year contracts or they’ll have one-year extensions, and so it just happens this way. The big contract discussion we’re in right now is with the IAM [International Association of Machinists, the city’s largest union representing more than 2,750 employees]. The other employee union contracts are just barely getting off the ground, so I don’t think we’ll be in the middle of those for another few months, I would imagine.
New Civic Center
LBBJ: Is the civic center project progressing on schedule?
Garcia: It is. In fact, if you go by there right now, it’s a very active construction site with a lot of trailers everywhere and a lot of construction. So it’s progressing as scheduled and we feel very good about the progress and, again, it’s going to be a great economic boon for downtown and a very successful project, we hope.
LBBJ: What’s the first thing that’s being built?
Garcia: It’s all happening at the same time. The twin tower civic buildings – the port, city hall, the library and the park – all kinda get done at once. All three buildings will be done at the same time because then people will move out of the other one and into those buildings.
LBBJ: So what are we looking at? A couple years? Three years?
Garcia: We’re looking at a couple years.
LBBJ: What happens to city hall once the new city hall is done?
Garcia: Once everyone moves out of city hall, then we raze city hall, which will then become a private development.
LBBJ: Are you trying to save money by moving more people into the new city hall once it’s built? City government rents a lot of space.
Garcia: Yes, that’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re bringing in some of the leases that we have at other places into the new building.
LBBJ: But at the same time you want to keep some of the places around the city, right? Because people might need access.
Garcia: Right, and it’s not everybody. It’s not everyone we’re bringing in, but we’re still bringing in some of the offices.
LBBJ: So two to three years, then what? Those three buildings are built, then the plaza?
Garcia: You can think of the new civic center in three blocks. Block one is the two buildings – the port building and city hall. That’s being done at the same time as the third block, which is the library. And once the library is done you do the park. The last piece is where the current city hall is. That piece won’t be complete until those are done and everyone has moved out. Then that becomes private development and that’s where the housing and the hotel and all that goes.
LBBJ: So the decision for a hotel isn’t a done deal yet. You’ll decide later?
Garcia: Listen, any development is driven by market forces, but the plan is for hotel and residences on the site. That’s the interest, that’s where the market’s at and it’s entitled, and you know how hard it is to entitle anything. So it’s highly likely that’s what’s going to end up there.
Housing And Rents And Inspections
LBBJ: So you mentioned housing being put into that center block, a lot of high-end housing is being built in Long Beach . . .
Garcia: And we’re building more.
LBBJ: . . . mostly in downtown, but there’s a large need for affordable housing. Does the city have any plans of building affordable housing?
Garcia: It’s important to recognize that the city does build affordable housing. We build it all the time. We build senior housing developments and affordable housing for veterans, and we just approved a project to build affordable housing for students and for families. Could we be doing more? The answer is absolutely. People also don’t know that . . . the state mandates affordable housing buildings, so we have to build affordable housing. We have to continue to do a better job of trying to get more affordable housing developers to build affordable housing across the city, but especially along the transit corridor, which makes it easy for people to get around.
We do have a plan and are discussing [it to see if there] are policy changes that will allow us to incentivize affordable housing. I’d rather incentivize developers to build affordable housing than force developers to build affordable housing, which then, I think, you end up with less quality.
LBBJ: Does each new project require a percentage of units be affordable?
Garcia: No, we do not have that rule.
LBBJ: Are you concerned about increasing rental rates in Long Beach and how do you propose addressing that issue?
Garcia: Rents are always going up or down. I don’t think that rising rents is necessarily a bad thing. You’ve got to consider the neighborhood mix and you’ve got to consider the strength of neighborhoods. When you look at household income, for example, which I think is a good measure when you’re comparing rent, most parts of town have seen household income increase. That’s a very positive thing for the neighborhoods and for the city. Along with increases to household income and increases to property values come rising rents.
Now, what we want to make sure of is that, as rents rise, they are being done in a way that’s, hopefully, responsible, thinking about the community that’s in place. Are we building enough affordable housing in other places so folks can get into homeownership? I think those are all the things that we’re looking at, but I don’t believe in dictating to property owners what their rent should be. I think that it’s important that the market move forward and that the city on the other end builds affordable housing, provides very low-income folks with opportunities to get into their home.
We now, as a city, provide a lot of vouchers for veterans or those who are homeless and trying to get into homes. We do a substantial amount of that and will continue to. It’s important work. It does concern me when folks get priced out of a neighborhood, but it’s important to have balance, I think, in neighborhoods and I think having young professionals and families of all types in a neighborhood makes a neighborhood strong. So you want to have a good balance.
LBBJ: Are you aware of any other cities that are facing similar issues of rising rents and affordable housing?
Garcia: Every city. This is California. We’re the most unaffordable place to live in the entire country. This is not a unique Long Beach problem. L.A. County is the most unaffordable county to live in the entire state of California, outside of the City of San Francisco. It’s very hard to afford homes because of the value of land. It’s a very difficult challenge for us; that’s why we need to continue to redouble our efforts to build housing that is accessible to all people, both on the rental side as well as on the purchasing side.
LBBJ: Have realtors talked to you about PRHIP? Their concerns about PRHIP [Protective Rental Housing Inspection Program] that we’ve been writing about?
Garcia: PRHIP, you mean as the law that just passed?
Garcia: Of course. I meet with realtors all the time. They have talked to me about that.
LBBJ: Their concern is that this is a precursor to rent control.
Garcia: PRHIP is PRHIP. I told them all that already. Listen, you cannot deny that there are slumlords in the City of Long Beach. I drive by some of these units in horrible condition and we’ve got to go after those folks. It’s a blight to the city and their causing damage to the community and hurting families.
LBBJ: That’s a small percentage of property owners.
Garcia: Absolutely. And PRHIP was put in place to address those issues. Some folks want to take three jumps ahead and think that’s on its way to something else. But it is what it is. It’s a way to go after the worst of the worst; that’s how it’s been designed. It also just started, so I think it’s important to allow a program to have a little breathing room. Let’s see where this program is a year from now and evaluate it, and see if it’s working. What I hope is that it goes after those who need to be incentivized to fix some of these apartments, and some of them are in terrible, terrible condition. That’s part of it.
Back to your rising rent issue, sometimes when some rents rise you begin to see some improvements in that unit as well. We have to find that balance and I am concerned about it. It’s a balance about ensuring that we’re supporting low-income families that have for years lived in a community. We want them to be able to stay living in those neighborhoods and those communities. We also want property owners and homeowners to succeed and be able to invest into their buildings and their properties. So we’ve got to strike a balance.
Let me tell you what I don’t want. I don’t want to happen in Long Beach what happened in San Francisco. I love San Francisco, but that has quickly become a city for only the wealthy, and I think that Long Beach has lessons to be learned in that, where we can take all of the great things that have happened in San Francisco – innovation and tech, a city of the future, good jobs – but still be a place where people can afford to live and we can have this mix of diversity and this mix of still being the most affordable beach city in the entire state of California.
LBBJ: Is that the case also for rentals?
Garcia: Absolutely. We are still the most affordable place to live along the coast for both rentals and buying property.
LBBJ: So maybe the rise in rents is from people who think there is so much of a gap between what we charge and what Huntington Beach charges, or wherever, that they can raise the rents.
Garcia: First of all, not everyone is raising rents, so I think it’s important to note that there are a lot of people living in a great apartment; there are a lot of great places to live in the city.
LBBJ: Back to PRHIP for one moment, because you had mentioned it was formed to focus specifically on the very small percentage of slumlords.
Garcia: The bad operators, yes.
LBBJ: Some of the concern is that the program is going into good property owners’ buildings and inspecting them on a regular basis . . .
Garcia: I told [property owners] that if they have concerns with the program and they feel that is happening, feel free to let me know and we’ll look into it.
LBBJ: They’re certainly letting us know.
Garcia: And great, but they should be letting the city know and letting our office know. But I also know that the program is going after, because I’ve seen these units, it’s also going after some property owners and units that are in terrible condition. All you have to do is take a drive through parts of Central Long Beach or Willmore City in the downtown area.
LBBJ: I don’t think anybody wants bad landlords . . .
Garcia: No, nobody does.
LBBJ: Because the good landlords get hurt, too.
Long Beach Airport
LBBJ: Have you sat down with the new airport director?
Garcia: We haven’t had our first official meeting but we will very soon. We’re very excited to welcome him aboard.
LBBJ: Do you have a personal preference to bringing U.S. Customs service to the Long Beach Airport?
Garcia: My answer to that is the same as it was before we started the study, which is let’s finish the study, let’s see the results, let’s see the economic data and have an honest conversation based on science and economics and listen to the neighborhoods and have a robust discussion. And then, at that point, the council can make a decision.
LBBJ: So you’re not opposed to have the customs facility if the study says it would be good for Long Beach?
Garcia: I think a decision of that magnitude has to be based on data and science and facts, not just because we feel it would be good. We need to know if it really will be good.
LBBJ: Right, but if the study does show that it really would be good, you would be supportive?
Garcia: If the study comes back, and it’s not just about being good, there are a variety of factors here. What are the impacts on the noise ordinance? That is the most important question. What are the impacts on the economy? Which I think is an important question. What is the impact on the neighborhoods and the community? Those are also important questions. If those three items get answered the correct way, then I think we have to have a good conversation about it. But I’m not going to take a position on that until we have all the facts and data.
LBBJ: What’s the timeline on this? Because it seems like it’s been a year and a half since a facility had been requested.
Garcia: I think it’s almost done. I believe it gets released to the public in a few weeks.
LBBJ: And then there’s going to be some town hall meetings by councilmembers?
Garcia: Listen, different councilmembers will do different discussions in their communities, but the important thing is to get it out to the public.
LBBJ: But it’s not going to be delayed six months or a year? Once you have the study and the public has an opportunity to hear the facts and weigh in, over a 30-day period or so, the council should then be able to make a decision, we would hope, before the end of the year.
Garcia: I think this is a big enough decision where you need to have thoughtful discussion.
LBBJ: Seems like anything that has to do with the airport drags out for years.
Garcia: You also have nine councilmembers who are all interested in the topic and want to have discussions, so they will set a timeline that they think is appropriate. Are we going to discuss it for a year? No, I don’t think anyone wants us to drag on for a year. So I think over the course of a few months after this is out, I think it’s likely that the council will begin to debate it.
The Marijuana Issue
LBBJ: What is your take on the marijuana issue as far as Long Beach is concerned?
Garcia: Well, my take and what I’m focused on now is supporting the city to ensure that, if voters choose to pass a variety of other measures on the ballot, there is appropriate revenue to cover our public safety and public health expenses. The city has put a measure on the ballot that is essentially a taxation revenue measure so that, if the other measures pass – the state measure and the city measure – then a fair tax rate is set on the sale, cultivation and manufacturing of both recreational and medicinal marijuana. And that’s what will be in front of voters.
LBBJ: Does the state measure limit the number of shops?
Garcia: The state measure is not necessarily a regulatory land-use measure; it’s broader than that. The city measure, that’s the proponent measure, the [petition]-driven measure that’s on the ballot, that is more of a regulatory ordinance, so that has some more regulatory functions. But that’s not our measure, which focuses solely on the taxation of both medicinal and recreational marijuana.
LBBJ: So we have the state measure, the local initiative and the city’s taxation measure?
Garcia: That’s right.
LBBJ: If the state passes its measure, does the initiative then go away? How does that work?
Garcia: No. If the state passes their measure – a recreational measure – that means that recreational marijuana use would then be regulated in the State of California in a variety of different ways.
LBBJ: So we’d be like Colorado and Washington?
Garcia: I’d say that we’d be more similar to Colorado and Washington, but still different. It’s still a different law in those states, but the answer to that would be yes. But that’s up to the voters of California. If that were to pass, in that case, that gives the ability to cities to regulate their own ordinances, locally, inclusive of recreational use.
LBBJ: And if the petition-driven initiative passes?
Garcia: So let’s say the state passes, and let’s say the local initiative passes. That would allow, in that case, both medicinal and recreational marijuana dispensaries in the City of Long Beach.
LBBJ: So it’s wide open?
Garcia: Right. I mean, we’re focused on the taxation measure.
LBBJ: The petition-driven initiative, that’s just medicinal, or is it also recreational?
Garcia: Remember, recreation is the state measure; the local measure is more of a land-use measure. It talks more to where they can go, how many you can have, some of those types of land-use questions.
LBBJ: Has there been any polling that you know of?
Garcia: Sure, but I’m not privy to their polls.
LBBJ: We’re just wondering if it will pass or what it’s looking like.
Garcia: You’d have to ask them.
LBBJ: We know that a group in Signal Hill just filed two petitions very similar to these that limit Signal Hill to nine facilities and puts a 10% tax on all transactions. Would it be a similar tax?
Garcia: I’m not familiar with Signal Hill’s measures. The Long Beach city taxation measure, which, remember, is only taxing the marijuana, sets a 6% to 8% tax rate on medicinal; it sets an 8% to 10% tax rate on recreational. . . . Also, if you’re doing cultivation or are on the manufacturing side, there’s some taxation in there as well. That sounds like it’s a little bit different than what Signal Hill is doing, but again, I think it’s important that the city covers its costs.
LBBJ: We’re talking about the potential of just huge amounts of money for the city.
Garcia: Well, we’re taxing the sales and we’re also doing a square footage fee . . . Our folks have estimated about $13 million a year. And that’s on the ballot.
LBBJ: That $13 million potentially generated, would that be going specifically to . . .
Garcia: Police officers.
LBBJ: Is Long Beach well prepared for a natural disaster?
Garcia: I don’t think there’s any city in the country that is very well prepared for a natural disaster. I think that we are as prepared as we can be, but part of being prepared for a natural disaster is not just the proactive security. Police, our contacts, the amazing work that’s done by our agencies like the FBI and others, and the port security, making sure that the port’s safe – all of those things are happening consistently. Our work with homeland security, that happens all the time. That’s one part of preparing for natural disasters because they are anticipating things that could happen, how security systems [will work], who’s talking to whom [and] what’s the relationship in case something happens.
The other end of that is the preparation piece. You have to invest in infrastructure to make your city safer. Our older pipes are more likely to break. Libraries that haven’t had their roofs replaced are more likely to fall in, in the case of an earthquake. City halls that have been pronounced structurally unfit, that will collapse in case of a major earthquake, need to be replaced and [that’s] what we’re doing currently. So I think we are investing in infrastructure and doing what we can on the prevention piece.
And then we work with our partners, our large partners like Cal State Long Beach and Long Beach City College, to host drills and to get people prepared and to do inventory. So we need to always do more, but it’s scary to think what a major earthquake will not just do to Long Beach, but to the Southern California region.
LBBJ: Along those same lines, how do you hope to make Long Beach a model climate-resilient city?
Garcia: We’ve done a lot. First, I talk about climate change and I talk about climate resiliency. It’s not something that we’ve talked about in the past. . . . The planet is warming, it is impacting cities, and it’s particularly impacting coastal cities. We have to recognize that’s a fact. It’s science. It’s not debatable. It’s not like maybe there are different opinions. So with that comes impacts to communities. This planet – and Long Beach – is going to, over time, get hotter. So what does that mean? Sea level will change. What does that mean? Those are things that we’re thinking about.
Last year I got Jerry Schubel [president and CEO] at the Aquarium and other scientists and marine experts to put together a climate resiliency plan for Long Beach, which we have and we’re continually adapting and making improvements on, and getting opinions on. So we’re looking at that, we are working with groups at the [California] Coastal Commission to build a climate resiliency program along the coast. Our immediate impact in the next few years is going to be heat. That’s going to be the biggest challenge for us. Do seniors have cooling centers available to them? Those are important questions we need to think about for the future.
LBBJ: We saw statistics about homelessness in L.A. County, and Long Beach stood out as one of the highest numbers of homeless population . . .
Garcia: But not per capita probably.
LBBJ: We’ll have to check. As homelessness continues to be an issue in Long Beach, what are some long-term solutions that you would like to see implemented in the city?
Garcia: Homelessness is a big issue for Long Beach and for a lot of urban centers. I’m anxious to complete our biannual homeless count to see where we are. Interestingly enough, our last homeless count showed a decrease in the number of homeless folks in Long Beach from the last count. But why I think people are sensing that there are more homeless is that downtown has developed and changed. A lot of our homeless community is actually pushed out into neighborhoods. So we’re not sure if there are more or less. The data tells us from the last count that we have fewer. But, when we do this next count we’ll really know.
LBBJ: When’s that going to be? This year or next year?
Garcia: January. My sense is that there seems to be a particularly more transient population, but we’ll know when the data comes out. It’s a big issue and the biggest part of this issue is the mental health challenge. A lot of these folks don’t want help, they don’t want shelter, and, as you know, they have a right to not accept help or shelter. So that puts us in a very difficult position as a community, and we have to continue to do the best we can to provide them services, try to get them into shelters. We have open beds in the city for them.
People don’t realize our quality-of-life units and police department and health department folks are out every single day talking to homeless individuals. There’s not a day that goes by that we’re not talking to people who are homeless, trying to get them help. It’s just hard to get all of them to want to get help. So it’s a combination of ensuring that these folks have affordable places to live. Back to your rent question – sure, rents may rise, but we need to consider the fact that people need places to live and people need opportunities to get their lives back together, and they need mental health assistance.
LBBJ: Are these individuals who are homeless potential workers?
Garcia: It’s a mix. Imagine how hard it is to get a job if you’re homeless. How do you get ready for an interview? How do you respond to e-mails for interviews? How do you find a job? We try to make these services available to all these people, but it’s very difficult. We grind away at it every day. It’s very sad to see what’s happening.
LBBJ: When do you expect the Queen Mary Land Development Task Force to make its recommendations to the council?
Garcia: September 20.
LBBJ: How’s that going to work? They come in, they make their recommendations and then what?
Garcia: Then the council adopts the guiding principles of the development, and then we move forward and the developers begin their process. It’s been a great process. The folks on the task force have been fantastic. I think Urban Commons is a good developer, and we’re supportive of them, supportive of the work they’re doing inside the ship. They’re investing $15 million of private money to improve the inside of the ship, and we’re excited about what they’re going to bring forward in the development. . . .
LBBJ: So, once the task force does make a presentation to the council, will the task force continue to exist?
Garcia: That’s something we need to talk about. The purpose of the task force was to present to the council and guide this community process, so their work there is complete. We’ll probably have some discussions about whether there is still opportunity for them to weigh in on other parts of the project. But they certainly won’t need to be as active.
LBBJ: What are the Economic Development and Technology and Innovation Commissions doing? We don’t hear too much about them.
Garcia: They have meetings every month and they’re doing stuff every single month. Starting with the Tech and Innovation Commission, they’ve been working particularly over the last few months on our open data policy. They posted open data conversations across the city, including at the university [and] at Long Beach City College.
They are working on our master open data and portal work and policy, which is a lot of work. By the end of this year, we will be launching our master open data portal for the city, which will make an incredible amount of data available to the public, which we’ve never done in the past. We actually have a very poor open data record as a city if you look at what other cities are doing. That was the main task for that group. They’re advising our new technology and innovation director on that, and they’ve also been working on some other kind of innovative platforms for constituent services that they’ve evaluated. They’ve evaluated all of our social media. All of our social media has dramatically increased, and our platforms and our technology for our apps, so those are some of the areas that they’ve been working on.
LBBJ: And the EDC?
Garcia: The Long Beach Economic Development Commission has also worked on a variety of things. . . . It’s an important committee that does a lot of the investment financing transactions and incentive packages. The main thing they’re working on – and they’ve been working on it for the last few months, and it’s finally at the point where I want it – is a 10-year economic development blueprint. The city has brought on a consulting group to work with them, and the consultant has interviewed a variety of people in the community. They’re not done; they’re continuing to do that. We hope that by December or January we will have the blueprint to present to the public.
LBBJ: Talk to us about the work of the port since Jon Slangerup has been in charge.
Garcia: I’m happy with it. I think Jon’s doing a great job at the port.
LBBJ: Do you communicate on a regular basis?
Garcia: I do. I communicate on a regular basis with Jon and the harbor commissioners.
LBBJ: We know you want to talk a little bit about education.
Garcia: On the education front, there’s a lot of progress. We’ve done the [Long Beach] College Promise as an organization. If you look at all of the education numbers, this city is doing great. And this is not just because the city has done it; our partners have done it. Cal State Long Beach is the fifth most-applied-to university in the country. Preschool seats are up: we’ve added 900 preschool seats. We’ve doubled the number of internships, which we said we would do. All of that is going really well. So the state of education in Long Beach and the city’s partnerships is very strong, and we’ll continue to grow. A success story for Long Beach has been education.
LBBJ: And we’re losing a top-notch person [referring to LBCC Superintendent-President Eloy Ortiz Oakley].
Garcia: I look at it as a gain. Our loss here locally is a gain for the state. To have that kind of community college leadership at the state level . . . I have worked for and with Eloy at the college.
LBBJ: So there’s no truth to the rumor that you want Eloy’s job because it pays three times more than the mayor’s?
Garcia: Is that a rumor? That’s the first time I’ve heard it! (laughs)
LBBJ: Since we’re short on time, let’s talk about future City Charter changes. We keep hearing rumors that you’re interested in looking at a full-time city council or some kind of L.A. system. Is that something you want to talk about?
Garcia: That would be a rumor. Listen, people are always discussing the Charter. You discuss it all the time. Folks discuss it all the time. We have a couple of years to have discussions about what the government structure should look like. But I don’t think it’s broken. I don’t think we’re in a position where it’s not working; I think it is working. Could it be improved? Possibly, but I think we’d have to do a lot of research to figure what exactly would work for Long Beach. So there is no proposal and there’s not one that’s being actively discussed, either.
LBBJ: Would you consider a mixed system like many cities are going to, where there are six council districts and three people elected at-large? That way, people would vote for four of the nine part-time councilmembers, increasing accountability and voter turnout.
Garcia: I don’t know that that would be a better system than what we currently have, but I’m willing to entertain . . . if we decide to make changes to our structure, I want to entertain every possible change to see what could work or could not work.
LBBJ: We talked to the National League of Cities, and evidently many large cities have a mixed system and more cities are going to it. By having three citywide councilmembers, they could concentrate on the big citywide issues, while the others focus on district issues. After all, the port, the airport belong to all residents. Crime is a citywide concern.
Garcia: I think if we have a serious discussion about Charter change, particularly leading up to the 2018 election or whatever election in the future, I think we have to entertain everything. That is one idea of many ideas out there on how to reform government.
LBBJ: So, if that’s case, before the 2018 election, you have to start thinking about that soon.
Garcia: If there are discussions about changing the Charter, I think that next year would be the appropriate time to start talking about it because there’s plenty of time.
LBBJ: Anything else you’d like to discuss?
Garcia: I love being mayor. I enjoy this job. The Long Beach economy is booming. We have challenges to address with infrastructure and some public safety needs, but if you were to ask me, because this is a business publication, if you were to ask the general business community, I think people are feeling good about the future of the city.