Mayor Robert Garcia reviewing education accomplishments on anniversary of first day in office. Photo: Jason Ruiz
On the date marking his one year anniversary in office, Mayor Robert Garcia met with members of the media and recapped the progress made in his first year in office, flagged certain areas that still need improvement and hinted at the 2016 fiscal budget he’s preparing to present to the Long Beach City Council in the coming weeks.
The biggest announcement pertained to that upcoming budget. Garcia announced the city will actually have a relatively small surplus of some $600,000.
The 2016 fiscal year was the first of about six years in which the city’s rising CalPERS retirement allocations was projected to create an unfunded $119 million dollar liability for the city by 2021. The 2016 year in particular was projected to have a $1 million deficit. Instead, Garcia’s expected budget will reflect a nearly $2 million dollar positive swing from those numbers.
Garcia said the surplus allowed for a few additional things to be done with the upcoming budget. However, he also cautioned that the city needed to remain fiscally responsible, adding that the “belt needed to remain tight.”
“Our projections are a little bit brighter because the economy is starting to bounce back; we're seeing some additional good news coming out of our numbers instead of having that million dollar deficit,” Garcia said.
The extra funds are planned to be invested in identified areas of need, including a continued investment in early childhood education and technology enhancements, as well as public safety and cleaning up what Garcia referred to as “an unacceptable level of trash and litter” in certain parts of the city.
In particular, Garcia said the money would focus on trying to bridge gaps between the city’s police force and its citizens and try to bring the two sides closer to being on the same page.
Garcia recently wrote an op-ed regarding the current state of police and community relations, something he said he would strive to improve after his election, among other things. When asked where he’d like to see those relationships at the end of his second year in office, Garcia responded with a mix of praise for the police department while noting there were looming issues that still needed to be addressed.
“I think our department knows that the scrutiny of our department and the mistrust in some communities is there in the city and we’ve got to work and do a better job,” Garcia said.
In a series of graphics, the mayor highlighted the four key areas of focus that his office has focused on since he was elected last June, and how the city has improved in those specific areas over the first year of his term.
Since June, the city has mixed an influx of over 5,600 jobs and 2,200 new businesses citywide to create an unemployment level of under eight percent, a five-year low. Garcia noted that tourism revenue again was at a historic level, garnering over $300 million in economic impact. He said that including the construction of the new Civic Center, more than $600 million in investment have translated to over 2,500 new residential units that are in the process of being built downtown.
“This kind of investment is exciting for downtown, and you’re seeing all the construction because of the focus we’ve put on creating a strong core,” Garcia said.
However, the issue of adding more affordable housing units to the downtown area was left untouched. Garcia had proposed the idea of providing low-cost housing for educators during his first policy address in July 2014, but since then, mostly luxury housing developments have been undertaken in the downtown area, with more expected to be included in the new Civic Center's design.
The education system has been a focal point for Garcia since he took office, employing a ground-up approach in addressing every grade from preschool through college. Garcia announced that with the completion of the North Long Beach preschool facility, one for which the city has raised over half of the necessary $14 million required for construction, the city is poised to add 400 additional seats for preschoolers in the city with a stated goal of adding 400 more. The North Long Beach facility will be the biggest in the city.
Earlier this year, Garcia and Long Beach education leaders helped put the city’s educational blueprints on the map when they flew to Washington D.C. and presented the Long Beach College Promise—the program that grants LBUSD students one semester of free tuition and guaranteed access to CSULB—weeks before President Barack Obama introduced America’s College Promise, granting the first two years of community college free to US students.
Making the city more green and tech-friendly were two platforms the mayor ran on before getting elected. Since then, the city was awarded a Bloomberg Philanthropies grant for an innovation team and remade its website, which includes an open data portal. Just last night, the city entered into a contract with OpenCounter, an online software company that will streamline the process of opening businesses in Long Beach by providing information on fees and licensing free of charge to prospective owners.
In terms of a more livable city, the mayor pointed to some $8 million in parks projects that will increase green space in the city, including the Drake and Cesar Chavez Park expansion, which will significantly add park space to the westside of the city that is short on such space. He added that an announcement coming in the fall will team the city up with Los Angeles and other cities upstream of the Los Angeles River to further enhance the corridor, making it more pedestrian-friendly.
Garcia has also become an advocate of water conservation and has teamed up with the Long Beach Water Department for the release of its Mission H2O LB campaign, set to launch Saturday. The city’s water usage is down 16 percent for the year, the lowest levels of consumption since 1956.
Across the city, homeless rates for both veterans and non-veterans are down by 18 percent. Garcia conceded that while funds from the federal government and other tools to help with the placement of homeless veterans has made it easier to get to a "functional zero" and complete President Obama's challenge of ending veteran homelessness, the city has been tackling the situation from all fronts. He said the city would be involved in discussions already being spearheaded by the public, as to what will happen to the homeless population at Lincoln Park once the Civic Center construction commences. He acknowledged that just because the city builds something doesn’t mean the people there will disappear.
“Our work is everyday and constant when it comes to the entire population,” Garcia said. “We’re trying to house everyone.”
The mayor stopped short of taking all the credit for the progress made over the last year, or even the ideas themselves. From the outset, he said, this year's progress was the result of hard team work to instill new initiatives while also ensuring that initiatives leftover from Bob Foster’s regime were put into play.
“This is only possible because we worked as a team,” Garcia said. “I’ve said before that I feel like I’m the quarterback of Team Long Beach and it’s because we have a great city manager and employees in our departments, we have a great city council that’s working together and believes in setting big ideas. And I think we have a very active, engaged commissioners and community. It’s been everyone.”