City Hall & LBUSD: Trust Us On Taxes • Long Beach Post

There is a scene in “The Jungle Book” where Ka, the snake, is wrapping his coils around Moglie, the boy, and singing a song “Trust In Me” while hypnotizing his intended prey.  While Ka was not asking Moglie to vote for a bond proposal, his message was basically the same as what two local government entities, the City of Long Beach and the Long Beach Unified School District, are asking of voters in November when they each place bond proposals on the ballot. 

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Last night, with much fanfare and advance commentary throughout the city, the Long Beach City Council placed a half-billion dollar bond issue before voters.  Monday, the Long Beach Unified School District placed on the November ballot a $1.2 billion bond measure.  Both bonds essentially cover the same thing: infrastructure; yet it is my feeling that the two measures will receive different reactions and commentary in the months leading to the November elections.  Why?  Because of who is singing, “Trust in me.”


Last week I had the fortune to be included on a round-table panel of Long Beach Posters to interview Mayor Bob Foster (link to article and video here).  Two questions I put to the Mayor involved the purpose of government and the public’s trust in government—more specifically our local government. 


I asked Mayor Foster what he sees as the primary purpose of city government, his reply was the first and primary purpose of government is public safety, “Below that to have a thriving community you have to have adequate infrastructure.”  I agree: the purpose of local, city government is primarily to protect citizens, businesses and property and to provide and maintain the infrastructure of roads, sidewalks and municipal assets.  For the first part of the answer the city spends a significant amount of the approximately $400 million budget on public safety—showing our priority as a community for protecting all citizens.  Regarding the second part of this purpose, infrastructure, the city government has failed for many, many years.  In the fiscal year 2007 budget, about one-half of one percent was for sidewalk repair—despite years of city council campaigns promising sidewalk repair, despite years of residents demanding sidewalk repair, despite years of lip-service that we need and will repair more sidewalks, city management and leadership budgeted approximately $2.4 million for sidewalk repair in the past twelve months. 


While many at City Hall still point to the reduction from 10% to 5% in the Utility User Tax rate imposed by voters in 2000 as a primary cause for the lack of infrastructure expenditures, the bottom line is that city revenue has increased substantially since 2000 and yet the problems still exist.  So the first question many voters, including this one, asks concerning the Infrastructure Bond Proposal is: where is the fiscal responsibility with the General Fund that garners my trust for this bond being properly administered and allocated?  With increasing revenues generation after generation of city council members and city staff have grown the size of our city government and essentially ignored core infrastructure to expand government services, programs and non-public safety personnel.  To what end?   


One example is the approximately $30 million per year the city spends on gang prevention programs.  Has this been a good allocation of funds and services? How do we know, since we still have a tremendous gang problem?  Here is an idea, instead of programs and personnel having panel discussions on the problem, give the LBPD $20 million for the next five years and a zero gang tolerance mandate.  The city saves $50 million in five years and a total of $200 million over ten years—the same amount of time of the infrastructure bond. 


Okay this is overly simplistic, but it is just one program that we see large expenditures, almost 20% of the total general fund budget, with little to no results, no accounting for outcomes and seemingly no end in sight.  How many other programs and budget items are there?  How many millions are spent in redundancies such as a Human Resources Department and a Civil Service Department?  How many entities are involved in the $30 million gang prevention budget and duplicating services or programs?  In short, what is City Hall willing to give up to repair our roads, sidewalks, libraries and facilities?   In recent history, the answer has been nothing.


Before you ask me to vote to increase my taxes, tell me what your purpose is for all the funds, tell me how the funds will be looked after and please tell me your vision for this city after the $500 million has been spent.  Our city leadership for decades has come to the population with funding crisis after funding crisis while we trip on sidewalks and break axles on city streets filled with holes.  Meanwhile, city payrolls grow and more individuals are added to benefit and pension packages for future generations.  If I am going to tax myself I want to know what the results will be, and who will be responsible and accountable for the money.


In 1999, voters overwhelming passed Measure A, which funded $295 million in infrastructure improvements for Long Beach Unified School District.  With no community oversight board, the District has spent $250 million of the Measure A funds and the remaining $45 million is committed to projects that are in progress.  With Measure A funds, the LBUSD has so far built five new schools, expanded three other campuses and has taken over 8,000 students off busses and put into their own local neighborhood school. 


Since Measure A passed, LBUSD has seen its revenue decline approximately $90 million; this is not budgetary speak and political number moving—the District has seen actual dollar revenue decline by ninety-million dollars.  Yet it has managed to be a finalist for the Broad Prize twice and win the award once, it has seen schools added to the Distinguished or Blue Ribbon school lists each year and test scores have risen.  According to Superintendent Chris Steinhauser, Long Beach Unified School District is “the leanest district in California when it comes to administrative costs.” 


At the Board of Education meeting yesterday board members voted 4-0 (Michael Ellis absent) to place a $1.2 billion bond on the ballot.  This bond will build more schools, update and modernize campuses and ensure adequate and proper maintenance throughout the district.  The amount of the bond was the result of two years of research, meetings, and outreach to all segments of the district.  The need for schools in some areas is very evident, as an example there are over 6,000 kids still bussed out of the Roosevelt, Stevenson, Lincoln, Washington and Franklin neighborhoods; building new schools for these areas results in lower transportation costs, improved attendance and stronger communities. 


Included in the bond measure will be a citizens’ oversight committee and independent audits to ensure the funds are spent responsibly and according to the guidelines of the bond measure.  While the citizens’ oversight committee provision was not in Measure A and LBUSD has proven it acts with responsibility and accountability with public funds, the members of the board wanted to show its good faith and intentions to the public when requesting bond funds.


If you ask Steinhauser, or members of the school board, employees at District headquarters, teachers in classrooms or site administrators what the primary question is that they must answer before making a decision they will all reply, “how does this benefit the kids?”  This is the litmus test for almost every decision at LBUSD.  Can the same be said for City Hall?  Is every decision made based in the framework of “How is this best for the people of Long Beach?”  I like to hope so, but given the past results I do not always know this to be true.


Mayor Foster, when I posed to him that there are many in the community do not trust City Hall to adequately and responsibly manage his bond proposal gave a very good answer.  In essence he said that you cannot approach the problem with bad faith, that we as a community must have the faith that the City Council, the city staff, the Mayor will enact the will of the people who voted for the bond issue and use the funds responsibly and improve our infrastructure.  I agree we should not approach these problems and solutions with the attitude of negativity and what can go wrong—but unfortunately past performance is usually an indication of future performance.  We have seen increased revenues for the city treasury spent in growing the size of City Hall and not fixing the gaping hole at the major intersection nearest you, or the sidewalks in front of your kids’ school.  By contrast, over on the Westside, where LBUSD headquarters are located, leadership has shown continued good faith, restraint, willingness to cut—mainly out of necessity since the District does not have the ability to control its revenue through taxes and fees like the city does—and solid fiscal responsibility and accountability.


Two bond measures, two government entities.  One has a history of strong fiscal management and responsibility, has proven the ability to be accountable for a sizeable bond fund and has measurable results throughout the area.  The other… maybe not so much.  I have little problem with voting to pass the bond measure for the Long Beach Unified School District, its leadership and history has proven it is worthy of my trust and support.  I need a lot more information, and frankly confidence, before I am willing to vote for the city’s infrastructure bond—hopefully Mayor Foster, members of council and city staff can provide that before November because our city certainly needs a dedicated and concerted effort to improve its infrastructure. 


Your thoughts welcome, click here to email me or on “Leave A Comment” below for public response.


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