The City of Carson is in the midst of a period of growth, with developers continuing to invest in the city, major projects like the Porsche Experience Center coming to fruition, a growing university and the potential for 157-acres of landfill to be transformed into a hub for commerce and tourism.
Carson Mayor Albert Robles is part of the City of Carson’s five-member city council. The mayor and councilmembers are all elected at large. Mayor Robles’ term is through November 2020. Mayor Pro Tempore Lula Davis-Holmes’ term expires in November 2018, as does the term of Councilmember Elito Santarina. Councilmembers Cedric L. Hicks and Jawane Hilton are serving terms through November 2020. With so many development projects underway and planned in Carson, the mayor believes the city’s future has never been brighter. (Photograph by the Business Journal’s Larry Duncan)
According to Mayor Albert Robles, the city, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, is “making tremendous progress” in achieving its motto: Future Unlimited. Robles was elected as mayor last June. He had been serving in the position after being appointed by the city council in 2015 when former Mayor Jim Dear stepped down to serve as city clerk.
“In the last couple of years, Carson has made major leaps toward fulfilling that vision,” Robles said, referring to the Future Unlimited motto. This is in part because of what he called a “great” business climate in the city. “The best indicator of that is that people are coming in droves to explore opportunities here in Carson,” he said.
The biggest name to land in Carson this year is the NFL’s Chargers. The former San Diego team is temporarily relocating to the StubHub Center for at least two years until the new stadium it will share with the Los Angeles Rams is completed.
“Businesses see us as a business-friendly community, and they value our geographic location that provides the convenience of multiple freeways, port access, two airports – Long Beach Airport and LAX. . . . And we have our own university, Cal State Dominguez Hills,” Robles explained. “There are very few communities like that. I think businesses see that as a plus, and they are now waking up to the opportunity and the potential of Carson.”
To ensure that the city government stays on course and is able to foster a stable environment for this growth, once-interim City Manager Ken Farfsing has, after nearly two years in the role, decided to stay on in an official capacity. Robles said that Carson has not seen a city manager as well-regarded and experienced as Farfsing in a long time.
Farfsing, who served as city manager of Signal Hill for 19 years, first took what was originally intended to be a temporary position after Carson had experienced years of management turnover across departments.
“There are a lot of big projects that are going on right now, and I just didn’t feel it was appropriate for me as a professional manager to kind of walk out,” Farfsing said of his decision to stay on. He added that he intends to stay until the city government has achieved more stability.
“Every department has turned over the top management staff within the last two years, so it is a real unstable situation,” Farfsing explained. “That’s not good for the community. It’s not good for the employees. So providing some stability has kind of been the goal that I have set for leaving.” The most senior head of a city department is the director of public works, who has been with the city for a little more than two years, he noted.
“The biggest issue has been the budget,” Farfsing said. “The accounting software is DOS [disk operating system]-based so it’s floppy disks. . . . It doesn’t even have updates anymore. So it has been difficult to get a handle on the budget. That has been a real issue,” he explained.
“When I came in [in 2015], the prior year’s budget had not been printed. It was never completed,” Farfsing said. “And so no one could really point me to a budget.” The city is in the process of acquiring new software for its budgeting process, as well as for use in other city departments, he noted.
Farfsing hired a forensic auditor to get to the bottom of the budget and has since hired a new director of finance, Kathryn Downs. “Kathryn has done a really good job with an old system [and] getting a handle on where we are in terms of revenues and expenditures,” Farfsing said. “And what she found going back through historic budgets is that seven of the last 10 budgets have been out of balance. So we have been drawing down, essentially, our savings account.”
Carson City Manager Ken Farfsing, left, and Director of Community & Economic Development John Raymond have worked together to streamline the city’s building and planning fee system, which has enabled the city to charge for time and materials related to project application processing. This is just one of the methods Farfsing has employed to address budget challenges. (Photograph by the Business Journal’s Larry Duncan)
Although the budgeting process for the next fiscal year, which starts in June, is still underway, Farfsing estimated that the city is running a $3 million deficit. Major costs associated with the deficit include a $700,000 increase to the city’s contract with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, increasing city payments to the California Public Employment Retirement System and rising health care costs.
An additional $500,000 had to be allocated for attorney costs, according to Farfsing. In 2016, a federal court jury found that Carson’s ordinance controlling mobile home park rental rates violated the rights of an owner of such a park. The city is appealing that ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
To contend with the deficit, Farfsing is considering increasing fees for some community programs, and perhaps eliminating some. Before the budget is passed, two more workshops are planned with the city council, he noted.
Positive news for the city budget came when Carson voters approved the renewal of the utility users tax last year. The tax funds everything from law enforcement to street maintenance to parks and recreation programs. “It means that the city can count on a reliable financial stream of income,” Robles said. “[However,] while it has brought us some financial stability, it hasn’t provided and met our full expectations in terms of revenue,” he explained. Low gas prices are causing a shortfall in expected revenue, he noted.
Among various community issues, pollution, homelessness and crime are some that rise to the top of Robles’ priority list.
“I think there is a concern, because of our geographic situation, that our residents are exposed to pollution generated from the refineries, generated from the commerce at the ports . . . more than any other community, except maybe Wilmington,” Robles said, “and that Carson residents’ health doesn’t appear to receive as much consideration as the health of other communities.”
For example, Robles pointed out that the South Coast Air Quality Management District has held hearings in Torrance but none in Carson. “We’re asking them to have one here in Carson, and they refuse to. Why?” he asked.
As in surrounding cities, homelessness is also an issue in Carson. “We have made an effort to help our homeless population,” Robles said. “We have events at various parts of the city where we invite various nonprofits to come out to provide services for the homeless.” For example, the city sponsors events where mobile dentist units come to the city to provide homeless individuals with dental care. Similarly, a cosmetology school that the city partners with provides free haircuts for the homeless.
“Just last week, we had a conference here at a community center . . . where ways to address the homeless situation were discussed, and what could be made available to landlords so they could provide homes to the homeless,” Robles said.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department recently informed the mayor and city council that violent crimes in the City of Carson are “significantly down,” according to Robles. “We’re much safer than we were just a couple of years ago,” he said. There has, though, been an increase in nonviolent crimes such as petty theft and vehicle break-ins, he noted.
Overall, Robles is excited about the city’s future. “I feel blessed to be here, the mayor at this moment in time,” he said. “We are at a stage in our development where I can confidently say that in five years, when we do this interview again, Carson is going to be significantly different, significantly better, because of the incredible new development that’s coming into Carson.”