Since taking office nearly 14 months ago, Mayor Robert Garcia has been going nonstop, putting a variety of initiatives into play – a combination of promises he made during the campaign and city needs he has come to recognize are necessary to move Long Beach forward. While time will tell if his actions produce results, he certainly has earned high marks for keeping his word.
Whether he’s working with the White House to resolve port labor issues, welcoming a new business to the city, lobbying on Long Beach’s behalf in Sacramento, or taking Southern California Edison to task via Twitter in the wee hours of the night for recent power outages, one thing is certain – Garcia is making a name for himself as a highly visible mayor determined to put a proactive foot (or tweet) forward.
While Garcia’s youth initially made some in the business community uneasy, he has evolved as both an enthusiastic cheerleader for the city and one who is not shy about tackling tough challenges when they arise.
As he sat down with the Business Journal for his second annual interview as mayor of Long Beach, Garcia exhibited a level of confidence that was not as evident a year earlier. Without hesitation, he laid out his plans for tackling major city issues and reflected upon events and accomplishments of the past year – without once referring to notes.
– Senior Writer Samantha Mehlinger
and Publisher George Economides
LBBJ: What’s your take on the minimum wage?
Garcia: The city council has taken the right approach, which is to be thoughtful and take our time, and ensure that we get all the data and research first. What has been important for me is not to accept the L.A. model as the standard, but for us to come up with whatever our own model and process is going to be, and that we do this in our own way. While I appreciate the work that has happened in other places, Long Beach is different. We have our own unique challenges. We have a lot of small businesses [and] we have a lot of nonprofits. And so we have got to be very thoughtful and inclusive. For the last few weeks and months I have been meeting with business owners, with our business improvement districts, with the chamber. I have been meeting with the DLBA [Downtown Long Beach Associates] as well as our nonprofit community, the Long Beach Nonprofit Partnership, and workers of course, in trying to just let everyone know what the process is going to be like and how it will roll out. My position is that we are going to have an inclusive process and it’s going to be open. A few months down the road, when we have data, I think we will be able to have a more informed conversation about what the next step is.
LBBJ: Do you personally support raising the minimum wage?
Garcia: I personally believe that wages have not grown at the same pace as the economy. What I am not going to do is come out and say, ‘I think we should do X,’ because I don’t know what we should do. I am a person who believes in data and information, and having people at the table, we have to do that part first.
LBBJ: As you know, in L.A., after the minimum wage passed, the unions asked for an exemption. Has there been any discussion from unions about asking for an exemption here?
Garcia: There has not. As far as I am concerned, if the council ends up voting to do some type of increase to the minimum wage or studying a citywide minimum wage, I would imagine and I would expect that that would be for everyone, that there are not going to be exceptions.
LBBJ: Another recent issue is JetBlue’s request for a custom’s facility. How do you feel about having a customs facility at the Long Beach Airport?
Garcia: The single most important thing is that we protect our flight ordinance. I have been saying that all along, and I think that the council is there. Right now we, as a city, are doing our research as well and figuring out whether or not having an international terminal would actually cause damage to our current ordinance or whether it wouldn’t. I think that’s a very important question.
I think everyone agrees that if the data comes back that any type of proposed international facility would in fact cause us damage or put us in a legal predicament that could cause damage to the ordinance, I don’t think anyone is interested in moving forward. I’m certainly not. But, I think you have to respect the process. I agree with those that believe that we should do the research, get the information and then come back and have a thoughtful conversation and go about what the next step is.
LBBJ: Who is doing the research?
Garcia: We will bring in consultants. The RFQ [request for qualifications] has yet to be released. [Publisher’s note: The RFQ was released about a week after the interview.] The larger question, and the one that we are not talking about now but I think is important, is a lot of folks think that our ordinance is tied to a number of flights. At the end of the day, what the ordinance is really tied to is noise. We have to understand that as airplanes get less noisy and become more quiet, the number of flights is going to change. I think that’s a conversation we need to start having in the community, because that’s really what our ordinance is based on.
LBBJ: Many people don’t know that.
Garcia: And that’s important. It’s a big difference.
LBBJ: Have you or any of your staff asked the city attorney’s office what would happen if a study had not moved forward – as far as the possibility of the FAA saying, ‘Wait a minute, you’re being unreasonable?’
Garcia: I have had conversations with the city attorney about that topic. I think it is important for us to remember that our ordinance can be challenged from a variety of different sources for a variety of different reasons. It can be challenged by folks who think it is too restrictive. It can be challenged by folks who think it is being abused. We have had this delicate balance for so many years that we want to keep when it comes to the ordinance. We’re aware that those are concerns.
LBBJ: When are you going to announce the members of the Queen Mary Land Development Task Force?
Garcia: Very soon. In fact, I would expect we will do something in the next few weeks. We have had a lot of interest and we have been having conversations with Garrison [Investment Group], the leaseholder to the ship. I think it’s going to be a really stellar combination of local folks, some respected leaders in the community as well as some respected names in the architecture community, people who are residents who live and have a stake in the downtown.
LBBJ: How many members on the task force?
Garcia: It’s 12 members. It’s going to be a great group, and I think this new group is going to work well with Garrison as we look at developing all the acreage around the Queen Mary.
LBBJ: How long is Garrison’s lease?
Garcia: There are 46 years remaining on the Queen Mary lease.
LBBJ: Does Garrison have a say-so on what is developed on the property or is it the city’s decision?
Garcia: Garrison is our partner on the ship, as well as the controlling partner on the acreage of land.
LBBJ: So they have to sign off on it?
Garcia: Correct. But Garrison also has options of bringing in development partners if they want. It’s not like there is only one way of doing this. There are a variety of ways of developing the land.
LBBJ: So if the task force comes back with a recommendation to build something, Garrison can say, ‘No, we don’t want to.’
Garcia: Well, I think it’s going to be much more collaborative than that. We’re not forming this task force in some sort of bubble. This has been a process that we are working with Garrison on. So we already know – the only reason this task force is being formed now is because Garrison is now ready to develop the site. I wouldn’t have proposed this task force at the beginning of my term because they weren’t ready to move forward with development. Now they’re ready. And they understand that an important component of development is community input. So they are going to come forward and say . . . “We would like to see X, Y and Z.” And the task force is going to say, “Well we would like to see A, B, and C. We like X.” And over time, we will end up with a project that Garrison supports and that has had community input.
LBBJ: Do you visualize a town hall type meeting afterwards?
Garcia: When you have a big development project like this, absolutely. And you’re talking about planning commission hearings, community meetings, all of those levels will happen in that process.
LBBJ: Are task force meetings going to be open to the public?
Garcia: I don’t see why they wouldn’t be.
The Proposed City Budget And Employee Pay
LBBJ: The city is looking at budget deficits two years down the road – Fiscal Years 2017 and 2018 – for an estimated $7.9 million and $7.5 million, respectively. How do you plan to address this? Are there going to be more fees, such as the first responder fee that was added recently?
Garcia: First, the city is in a much stronger financial position today than it has been in a really long time. . . . These deficits are small. We are talking about a little over 1 percent of the General Fund budget. These aren’t enormous deficits. Very manageable. But the deficit has a direct relationship to the amount of money that we are now paying into our unfunded liability pension fund. So while you never want to have a deficit, we are going to manage our deficit every year because, unlike Congress, we balance our budget every single year. That deficit is essentially us paying down our long term pension obligation, which is really an investment in the long term financial future of this city.
When we did pension reform, and when the state came in and then did its own version of pension reform, we then began also making a larger pension payment. So, sure, if we weren’t paying a larger pension payment and being irresponsible like we were a decade ago, maybe there wouldn’t be a deficit. The truth is, is that the deficit is related to our future investments. It’s a really good financial strategy that we have, and so that will be managed.
On the other end of it, there are a lot of exciting things happening. The truth is that we budget conservatively, as we should. We do know that there are a large number of residential units, particularly in downtown, being built that will bring in property tax revenue for the city. We do know that we have some incredibly great tax sharing agreements coming down the pipeline in the next few months. We know that we have [former] redevelopment agency properties that we will be selling off. . . . So, we think that we [are managing] our financial future.
LBBJ: But you also have the unknown of the MOUs (memorandums of understanding) that have to be decided with nine unions . . .
LBBJ: And those are not accounted for in this or future budgets.
Garcia: Well, it’s not in this [fiscal] year. This next year, the budget we are working on for FY 2016 does not include an increase for the IAM [International Association of Mechanics and Aerospace Workers].
LBBJ: But in FY 17 and 18, the $7.9 million and $7.5 million [budget deficits] also do not account for any increases.
Garcia: That’s correct.
LBBJ: There may not be any pay raises, but at the same time we would expect the unions to argue for pay raises. So it’s not really $7.5 million or $7.9 million. You could be looking at double that, easy, if you agree to increases.
Garcia: I think the city has been responsible financially. And I think our not including an increase that we can’t afford in next year’s budget show’s a continuation of that responsibility.
LBBJ: Do you think the city council understands that . . .
Garcia: I do . . .
LBBJ: Because you have a majority of councilmembers who side with unions and the unions are going to try to sway that majority to give them pay raises.
Garcia: When this council votes this [proposed FY 16] budget in, which does not include an increase, that will reaffirm that position [that they understand the city’s financial situation].
LBBJ: But none of the contracts have been negotiated yet.
Garcia: Remember, we can’t negotiate contracts that are not in front of us.
LBBJ: Let’s forget this budget, because like you said, it’s a strong budget, we’re talking a year and two years down the road and negotiations are starting now I would assume for next year.
Garcia: Not yet. We have one union right now we are negotiating with.
LBBJ: One big one – IAM – which is the majority of employees.
[Publisher’s note: The interview with the mayor occurred on August 19; on August 24, the city announced that it had reached an agreement with the IAM. The union’s nearly 3,500 members were scheduled to vote on the agreement yesterday, August 31. If approved by IAM members, the city council would vote on it the following day, tonight, September 1. The agreement calls for a one-time payment – a bonus – to each IAM employee, equating to 3 percent of their July 1, 2015, salary. So, if an employee’s base salary was $60,000 as of July 1, that person would receive a “bonus” of $2,000, subject to taxes. That bonus money would total approximately $1.9 million for General Fund employees – to be paid from a General Fund surplus resulting from higher revenues than projected – and $3.8 million for employees who work for special fund departments such as the airport, harbor, water, gas and oil, etc., for a total bonus of $5.7 million to city employees under IAM. Just under two-thirds of IAM members work in special fund departments. It’s important to stress that the tentative agreement with IAM is for the current fiscal year – a retroactive bonus – not the new fiscal year beginning October 1. While it’s too early to tell, this arrangement could set a trend for future negotiations with all nine unions. Bonuses do not impact pension costs.]
LBBJ: So the concern, again, is we are already looking at deficits in FY 17 and 18, and even though they may be manageable, the deficits could increase if five members of the council approve pay raises.
Garcia: On any given Tuesday, the council can come in and five members could vote, or a super majority against my veto could vote, to do all sorts of things.
LBBJ: If you felt the council was unreasonable in pushing for pay raises, would you use your veto?
Garcia: Absolutely. I would use my veto on anything I felt was unreasonable.
LBBJ: Have there been any thoughts or discussions on tax increases going on the ballot?
Garcia: There have always been conversations in the past that have come up now and again about revenue, that’s no surprise. But we’re not actively pursuing that as an option. Right now our focus is on trying to manage what we have. However, let’s be realistic. Do we have an incredibly large capital and infrastructure need? Absolutely, there’s no question. Do we have enough revenue to fix the streets and capital projects and increase police? No, we don’t. So, in the future, we will have a conversation about that, but right now we are concentrating on what we have.
LBBJ: It was announced earlier this year that crime was down in Long Beach, but there seem to be more violent crimes than usual this summer. What is being done to curtail that?
Garcia: The chief [Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna] gave an update on this last night at the council meeting. First, when you look at our five-year average, there’s no question this city is experiencing some of the lowest levels of crime it has ever seen. As of last night, the five-year average, we’re still at a period of extremely low crime. Now, some years and some communities are going to see a spike. That is the ebb and flow of crime statistics. What we have to make sure of is that we are remaining within these historically low numbers and we retain these averages moving forward. As we sit here today, the number of murders we had this year is essentially identical to the number we had last year – give or take one or two. Obviously, every single one of these is serious, they matter to us, it’s a real person, but last year was the lowest number of murders recorded ever and this year will likely end up being something similar. I think that overall, not just the police department, but our parks programs and library systems are doing a great job of policing in the City of Long Beach.
The Mayor On The Job
LBBJ: Are you surprised with the number of hours you spend on the job?
Garcia: I can’t say that I’m surprised. I think that one of the benefits for having served as both vice mayor and on the council is that I knew what I was getting myself into. I’m energized by the job. I love Long Beach and I love being able to help improve the city. This is not a 9-5 type of job, but I enjoy it and I know what I got myself into and that’s what I’m committed to.
LBBJ: Do you get a lot of calls in the middle of the night?
Garcia: I get a lot of calls often, and sometimes in the middle of the night. You’re never not working; there’s always something happening. Just when you think you’re going to spend a few hours on a Sunday having a family lunch, you’re going to get a call you’ll have to pick up. That’s just part of the job.
LBBJ: What would you say is your most challenging responsibility as mayor?
Garcia: The single item that keeps me up at night, and really is the most frustrating, is when you see a crime or something horrific and disturbing and it’s happening in your city. I think that is what is difficult, because as mayor, you feel you are responsible for everyone in your community. I want everyone to be safe. I don’t want anyone in any neighborhood to feel that his or her neighborhood isn’t safe. I also know that we live in a big urban city of almost half a million people, and it’s going to have all the urban challenges any big city does. I think a vast majority of people feel safe, but I also think there are communities in Long Beach that don’t feel safe all the time and don’t feel comfortable walking their dog at night like I can. That’s problematic We still have a lot of work to do.
LBBJ: Is there a moment in the last 13 months that stood out to you as a major challenge?
Garcia: [The work stoppage at the port.] There were moments during, particularly towards the end of that resolution, where I was having daily conversations with Secretary Tom Perez from the White House. We were talking to PMA [Pacific Maritime Association] folks and ILWU [International Longshore and Warehouse Union] folks, and I was working with all of the West Coast mayors who have ports. So I think that during the height of that work stoppage and of that slowdown . . .
LBBJ: You had just begun serving as mayor . . .
Garcia: Yeah. It was a few months in. That was probably the most challenging. Particularly that last week, because we were getting incredible pressure and interest, of course, from national retailers, elected officials, all sorts of people. Everyone was involved. So just trying to manage people’s expectations as well as trying to push for resolution was challenging. Fortunately it got done. And look at those port numbers. Our numbers and our volumes have never been better. We’re breaking records, and the Port of Long Beach is proving once again it’s the best place to do business anywhere in the world.
LBBJ: Do you consider filling vacant commission seats to be your top achievement in the past 13 months?
Garcia: I don’t. I consider it to be something I am very proud of and an achievement. I don’t know that it’s the top achievement, but it’s something that I am very proud of.
LBBJ: What do you consider your top achievement?
Garcia: There are two, but one that stands out is, I think I’ve been very clear in setting a course that we are going to continue being fiscally responsible in the City of Long Beach. Mayor [Bob] Foster did a great job of keeping the belt tight, and it is something I saw up close for four or five years. We have kept those same fiscal policies that have continued into this last year, plus. The reserves have never been stronger. We’re not . . . [going to] all of the sudden have a surplus and spend all of this money on all these positions. We’re keeping the belt tight, [and] we’re being fiscally responsible. We’re not shrinking from our responsibility of a conservative budget. We’re not doing increases as part of our budget next year to our employee group, because we just can’t afford it . . . When you’re a councilmember and you come in for the first time, most folks don’t run and say, ‘What am I going to start cutting?’ Most folks come and want to do stuff. They can be responsible about it, but they want to improve their parks system, open the libraries for more hours, provide services, fix roads. To the council’s credit, we have all kind of agreed that that is the best course. That has been something I am most proud of.
The second is renewing our city’s commitment to education as a top priority, and the top priority for us as a community. The fact that we’re now an equal partner in the Long Beach College Promise, the fact that we’re promoting and expanding preschool seats actively, is very exciting. That we are focused on internships for young people and committing to doubling those internships, I am also extremely proud of that.
LBBJ: How is your relationship with other elected officials, city council, city staff and so forth?
Garcia: To be honest, I think it’s great. The one I have a great relationship with is the council. All of them. I talk to them regularly. I think that’s important.
LBBJ: Do they ever come into your office unannounced?
Garcia: Absolutely. I was with one of them earlier today. They just came in and we talked for 20 or 30 minutes. That happens all the time. And that’s important. I also have a very strong relationship with both our federal and our state delegation, which is critical. That is something I brought to the table before I was mayor, and I think it is even stronger now. You have to have this relationship in Sacramento, in D.C. and, of course, with city staff. I think I work very well with [City Manager] Pat [West] and the whole department head team as well as all of our rank and file employees.
LBBJ: You said you wanted to be 100 percent transparent. Do you feel you have been?
Garcia: I feel like we are being very transparent. One thing I’ve tried to do is ensure that the process we go through in projects large and small is open and transparent. You should look at the civic center as an example. When the civic center project came forward, that was going to be one and done, right when I was coming into office. I purposefully slowed it down and began planning community meetings across the city. We got the public involved. It was open, it was transparent. I think there have been something close to 60 or 70 community forums about the civic center. That’s my style. We’re stronger when we bring people in and get diverse points of view. I don’t think that’s something we should be afraid of . . . I am also very active, as you know, on social media, and people know what I am doing all the time because I tell them.
Revisiting Last Year’s Goals, And City Commissions
LBBJ: During last year’s interview, you discussed several goals. We’ve already discussed two of them: passing a responsible budget and focusing on education and internships. Others included economic development, ensuring the future of the port and technology-related items. Do you feel you have met these goals, or do you feel that you are on the way to meeting them?
Garcia: Any initiative is always in progress. You never finish something as long as you are moving forward. But absolutely. On economic development, you see it happening. You have a commission, you have an economic development department now that you didn’t have before. We’re actually talking about economic development programs. We have an eight-member Innovation Team that is focused on economic development. We’re out there trying to look at small business incentives and other ways of spurring economic development. That continues to be very active. And we’re doing big projects now. We’re actually selling off our parcels that we can develop. I would argue that the port has been incredibly responsible and folks that had concerns about what was going on at the port, that is just not happening any more. There has been a deliberate effort to ensure that the port and the city work together. There is no question that’s been happening.
I’ll touch on a few other things. I’ve been incredibly focused on technology and civic innovation. I think we have done a lot, whether it has been launching our website or launching our Bloomberg Innovation Team that is working on those issues. We have been focused on restructuring our technology and innovation department with our new director. We’re incredibly focused on those issues, and people are talking about technology now. We’re talking about innovation. We’re attracting and working with companies like Virgin Galactic and others that are in that area. I want to make sure that our government is a 24-hour government available on your smart phone. That’s the future of government.
LBBJ: We realize the economic development and technology and innovation commissions held their first meetings this year, but when are you going to be able to tell the public, “These two commissions have been a success because . . . ?”
Garcia: You have already seen some success. Take the economic development commission, for example.They are going to be working on the minimum wage issue. They are going to be working on trying to streamline our process when it comes to business licensing. They have already been working on implementing Open Counter, which is this great new tracking system for businesses. Same thing with the tech and innovation commission. They are right now evaluating all of our smart phone apps and trying to make them smarter.
LBBJ: Is there a timeline for them to complete certain things that you or the council have given them, or is this just sort of open-ended?
Garcia: It’s like any commission – it goes on indefinitely. You are always working. But there are certainly projects that have a timeline. The economic development commission is going to contract with someone to write an economic blueprint for the next 10 years for the city. That is something that is going to be completed and done and presented at the council at some point within the next year.
LBBJ: By the time you have your second State of the City Address in January, would you expect these commissions to have some results that you can share?
Garcia: Absolutely. They’re producing results now. We’re always going to report at State of the City and other opportunities what work is being done. And this goes not just for those commissions, by the way. Any commission that is active should produce.
LBBJ: Is the airport commission going to be involved in the customs study?
Garcia: Of course. I don’t see why they wouldn’t be. I would absolutely expect that the commission would be involved.
LBBJ: What kind of chore or charge do you have for the innovation and technology commission right now?
Garcia: They have been charged, first and foremost, to work with this new structured department that we have. They have been charged with looking at our smartphone applications. They will be looking at municipal broadband and municipal fiber. They’re working on an open data policy right now.
LBBJ: What about the Innovation Team?
Garcia: They are there every single day. They’re working on a long-term plan and evaluating where the city is in collecting information and data. So what they’re doing hasn’t been done in this city maybe ever. We’re talking about real research on how we operate as a community, where there are opportunities for economic development in the future, workforce trends, they’re interviewing and getting to know the entire community, meeting with business people particularly in technology sectors and trade, transportation, energy sectors. I would imagine that the innovation team, at some point in the near future, is going to begin the first public rollout of what they’re doing.
LBBJ: Have you thought about your goals and priorities for year two?
Garcia: One thing I’ve been focused on a lot lately is how to keep the community clean, the appropriate amount of infrastructure investment and our business corridors. I’m looking at ways of restructuring the way we currently do things for better results. For example, as part of the budget, we’re creating “Clean Teams” within the city that take a page out of the Bixby Knolls or the Downtown Clean Team programs so that we can have people out there taking care of problems quicker, particularly in neighborhoods that have more litter or more needs for trash pickup or more dumped items.
LBBJ: So you feel pretty good about where you’re at right now and where we’re headed?
Garcia: I do. One thing we haven’t talked about is that the city has been doing a great job of making the community more livable. You look at water conservation – the city has been meeting and exceeding all of the governor’s goals. The city’s water quality – our beaches and our lagoons – have never been better. The council passed an urban agriculture ordinance; park projects are moving forward, particularly projects like Gumbiner Park, or our beach pedestrian path.
The Future And The Role Of Education
LBBJ: Are there any major challenges for the future? What do you consider the most pressing?
Garcia: Managing the budget within our means will be a challenge every single year. Long-term, one of our challenges is going to be how we, as a community, adjust to the changing economy. We know that high-paying jobs are different jobs today. They are jobs in the technology and energy sector, so how do we attract those high-paying jobs long-term? You’re beginning to see some of those jobs at Douglas Park and other places. The other long-term challenge is that we can’t forget that we still have what could be up to 20 percent of our neighbors who live in poverty. That is, one in five Long Beach residents are living close to the poverty line. We should all be concerned about that, whether we’re business owners or residents; whether we live in East Long Beach or North Long Beach or downtown, we all need to be concerned about the welfare of these members of our community. They need our help.
LBBJ: It’s also important to business, because those are customers. And retail stores especially could use more business. What is the answer to getting low-income people to move up? A lot of people think it’s raising the minimum wage. We think it’s education and people working hard to move up.
Garcia: I think it’s a lot of things. I personally believe that the single most important thing is education. I think education is an economic development driver. Education helped my family and I out of a tough situation. So having access to a quality education, being able to go to school, succeed, get on a career track, or get on a college track, I think is something that we want everyone in our community to have. And not everyone is able to go through that because along the way there are other factors. Along the way, if you’re going to school but you know that your parents aren’t home because either they’re working or it’s a single-family household, or you have to worry about food on the table, or worry about your mother being sick and she can’t afford healthcare, all of that affects your educational experience. So, while education is by far the single most important thing, there are other factors in someone’s life that impact their ability to succeed.
LBBJ: Is there an initiative that could be developed that helps low-income people in Long Beach get an education or learn a trade but they do not now have the means to do so?
Garcia: There are. One, not everyone starts at the same place. That’s why a preschool initiative is so important, because we know the research says that once a young person is at the first or second grade, there are already students who are behind. So it doesn’t matter where they’re at by the time they get to high school or college because they are already behind in their ability to learn. We know that, from an investment point of view, when you get and equalize education for students or a community, and that starts in preschool, then everyone is prepared when they start kindergarten to hopefully be around the same place. That’s why we’re focused on that as an initiative. That’s the same reason why we’re focused on internships. We know that when students are at the high school or college level, we give them an opportunity to work, to make a little money, to help their family out, or to learn a trade or skill, then they’re better prepared to make choices. I hear so many stories about interns who never really had a job, came from a low-income family, got an internship, and then got hired by the business. And they’ve been there for five, six, seven years, because that business owner or nonprofit gave them a shot. And maybe they wouldn’t have gotten that shot if they would have just walked in to the door without any experience.
LBBJ: Seems that education is the answer to a lot of issues.
Garcia: It is the answer. Of course.
Questions From Readers
LBBJ: It seems city council meetings often run very long and people have to wait a long time to testify on an issue. What can be done about this?
Garcia: My job at council meetings is to manage the agenda.
LBBJ: And we congratulate you. You’re doing a great job.
Garcia: Thank you. I think it varies. Having been on the council prior to being mayor, I don’t know it’s much different. I think that some nights go long because the issues are big. Other nights are shorter because the issues are not as big. Right now we’re in budget season so we’re attaching budget hearings to council meetings, so of course they’re going to go longer. Last night [August 18], sure we could have been out of there by 8:30 p.m. or 9 p.m., but we also had the budget so we went an hour and a half, two hours longer.
The system we have right now works. We’re meeting three times a month as a body – every week except the last Tuesday of the month. I also think there is a new council that has new ideas and so, sure, they’re going to want to bring forward their ideas and they have a right as an elected member to agendize items. At the start of every large new council, you’re going to have additional items because they are interested and they are making commitments to their community. You’re always going to have a little bit of that, but generally I think everything is running pretty smoothly.
LBBJ: Maybe at the beginning of a council meeting you can ask for a show of hands on who’s here on a particular issue. Whichever issue has the most “hands” goes first?
Garcia: Everyone has a right to his or her three minutes.
LBBJ: How about when you know it’s a heavy agenda, the council meeting begins earlier, say 4 p.m., get public testimony out of the way, license issues, consent calendar, etc.?
Garcia: Well, I just want to remind you that we have a part-time city council.
LBBJ: What is the City of Long Beach currently doing to attract and support startups in tech industry jobs?
Garcia: That’s why we have the Bloomberg Innovation Team. Part of this budget also creates a tech innovation center downtown. We’re meeting with tons of startups right now. I would think more activity has happened in this area in the last six months than has ever happened in the city.
LBBJ: It cost $792.66 in business license fees to start a single-employee tech startup in Downtown Long Beach. That includes the business district assessment. Culver City, Santa Monica and Downtown L.A. are all around $300 for similar businesses with $100,000 or less in gross receipts. Downtown Long Beach is one of the most expensive places in Southern California to start a business. Are there any plans to reduce the fee structure for new tech startups?
Garcia: We are looking at addressing that. It’s concerning and I get that. We are having conversations about that.
LBBJ: The per employee fee [$17.95 for the startup], seems high. There’s also the annual increase based on the Consumer Price Index that adds up. Another incentive is to waive the business license fee the first two years for certain startup businesses.
Garcia: We’re talking about all those things.
LBBJ: What is the city doing about the large-scale power outages? I remember reading that Garcia wanted to attract tech companies to Long Beach, but it’s kind of hard to attract tech companies when you have several large power outages in such a short time span.
Garcia: We asked the public utilities commission, which regulates utilities, to investigate, which they’re doing. This week we’re having a pretty large town hall with legislative delegation. As you know, we don’t regulate the utilities. I have been meeting with them, they know how frustrating and unacceptable this situation is that they put us in, particularly the larger downtown outage. It’s a serious issue, we’re taking it very seriously, we’re taking our time with it, and we’re working with them. We’ll have some answers within the next few weeks or months.
LBBJ: When is the “convenience fee” of $4 per payment [to pay city invoices, including utility bills] going to be eliminated? I can pay all of my other bills online without any charge. There’s an automatic pay, but I won’t give permission for it to be taken out of my account.
Garcia: I’m absolutely aware of this. It’s being discussed, and I don’t think it’s a good business practice. You have to pay a fee to pay online. The city is charging folks to go through the process that is the easiest and the most simple – which is online. So we shouldn’t be charging people to pay their bills online. That’s something we’re discussing.
LBBJ: Have all rape case DNA kits been tested, or do we have a backlog?
Garcia: I would have to check. [Later, a police department spokesman told the Business Journal that all kits had been tested.]
LBBJ: What are your plans to deal with the mentally ill in downtown?
Garcia: First, one of our drop-in centers for a lot of folks who have mental health challenges and mental illnesses is actually moving from its current location to Mental Health America, which is on Long Beach Boulevard. That will have an impact, at least in some of those downtown communities, but the bigger issue is how are we getting them help and how is the city interacting with those with mental illness? It’s incredibly sad and it’s also frustrating for a lot of people. I get that. But our police officers are going through mental health training, the D.A. has this whole mental health initiative that we’re involved with in how to work with the mentally ill, and deal with the mentally ill and try to get them housing and support. As you know, when you look at our homeless population, there’s a direct relationship with them also being mentally ill. It is a sickness and we have to be able to treat it and get these people help.
LBBJ: What about homeless veterans?
Garcia: Our goal is to end veteran homelessness by Christmas, and we are doing a very good job of that. We will probably give a report on that around Veteran’s Day, and then see where we’re at.
LBBJ: Thank you for your time. Anything else you’d like to share?
Garcia: I love Long Beach. This has been a good 13 months. We have a lot of work to do still, but I think things are going really well.