Assistant City Manager Tom Modica and LBPD Chief Robert Luna take questions from attendees at the Deforest Neighborhood Association meeting on Measure A. Photos by Jason Ruiz.
The intensifying tug of war between those supporting the city’s efforts to promote Measure A as a much needed source of supplemental revenue for a city with a crumbling infrastructure and those vehemently opposed to the idea of any tax raise took center stage at the Deforest Park Neighborhood Association meeting Wednesday night. With election day just weeks away and vote by mail ballots filtering in, the opposing sides of the potential one-percent sales tax increase have taken their message to the neighborhoods.
The chiefs of the city’s fire and police departments and its assistant city manager laid out the city’s laundry list of needs, after a decade of cutbacks, while the opposition did its best to dispel that narrative with a scathing taking of inventory by former Fifth District Councilwoman Gerrie Schipske.
Assistant City Manager Tom Modica outlined the city’s infrastructure needs, reiterating that, by its own estimates, the city needs about $2.8 billion over the next 10 years to keep things like streets, parks and plumbing safely operating. He said there has been no voter-approved tax in the city in 35 years; in fact, the last tax measure to pass was in 2000. That was a move by voters to cut the users utility tax by half, which cut $38 million in revenue from the general fund.
In 2008, Measure I, which sought to secure similar funding failed at the polls despite receiving 53 percent support from voters. Because it was more finite in its wording, it required a two-thirds voter approval to pass. The language of Measure A is more vague, which has served as the root of some of the dissent. However, it allows for a lower voter-approval threshold. Wording aside, the numbers laid out by Modica show the need for funding is there.
“I’m sure I can look around this room and everyone here can tell me five potholes that need to be fixed and six streets that need to be redone and 10 sidewalks that are lifted and broken, and we get that,” Modica said. “We know where most of these things are and some that you’ll let us know about, and we wish we could fix all those. The reality is we have not invested in infrastructure to the full need. “
The city is staring down a budget deficit over the next two years that sits just below $11 million, a figure that’s expected to grow due to the continuing volatility in the price of oil and because of its increased obligation to city employee pension payments. Measure A, a 10-year sales tax increase that would raise the city’s rate by one cent for six years, and half a cent for the remaining four years before the tax expires is expected to generate $48 million in annual revenue for the general fund that the council has pledged to spend on infrastructure. It would also include a mayor-appointed citizen oversight committee—members would be voted in by the council—that would oversee the spending of the revenue generated by the measure with a stipulation for frequent reports to council included in a separate resolution.
The introduction of the tax measure almost immediately drew criticism for its potential to disproportionately impact those on fixed incomes and those in poverty. A political action committee supporting a congressional bid in the district has focused its energy almost solely on defeating the measure with a social media campaign and by distributing fliers to local businesses.
However, in an interview last month, Mayor Robert Garcia clarified that the tax would not be imposed on basic necessities like groceries and medicine. The city projects that the average cost per person, should Measure A be voted into effect June 7. is about $5.67 per month.
“What we know is it’s basically the cost of Starbucks coffee,” Garcia told the Post.
Long Beach Police Department (LBPD) Chief Robert Luna and Long Beach Fire Department (LBFD) Chief Mike Duree took the floor at the Deforest Park Clubhouse, unleashing a slew of statistics that not only illustrated just how much services have been cut back in the years since the financial crisis in the mid-2000s, but translated those cuts into response times and rising crime rates.
Between the two departments, 435 positions have been purged from their ranks since 2008, with 208 of those being LBPD officers. Luna said to offset those cuts the department had to do away with proactive crime units like detectives from its gang task force an auto-theft unit, that until its dismissal, had cut auto thefts significantly within two years of being instituted.
He said that the lack of officers on the streets have led to an increase in major accidents and fatalities resulting from them. By his count, citations for traffic violations have gone down by 22 percent due to a stretching of resources that have forced the department to have gaps in their coverage.
Newer legislative mandates for increased training for officers in the fields of mental illness, bias-based policing and the use of body cameras—a program the department rolled out this year—will necessitate pulling more officers off the street to obtain that training, a move that will both stretch its limited resources even further and add to its overhead. The departments workload and resources, he said, are going in two very different directions.
“We are a department that is very much struggling to keep up with the demand,” Luna said. “I say demand, but it’s the expectations that our community has of our police department.”
Duree likened his situation to a baseball manager having to play a lineup with a shortstop missing on the field. Because of the elimination of five engines, a truck and a rescue ambulance out of service a total of 84 fire fighters have been taken off the field. He said this has caused response times meeting the National Fire Protection Association standards to drop by nearly half, with the LBFD meeting that standard just 46.1 percent of time last year. That number dropped from about 80 percent in 2007.
If the measure were to pass, Duree said the first priority would be to reinstitute the Belmont Shore engine company which would allow for another player to be on the field and ease the strain on the rest of the system. This could improve response times which ultimately benefit the community that need those services. If it doesn’t the department will survive, but it will do so with the current pieces it has at its disposal.
“Either we find a way to get resources back into our system that have been taken out or I have to do the hard work and change the narrative with you and tell you that ‘well, we're just not going to do that anymore,” Duree said. “That’s a difficult place for me to be because I live here, I work here, I know what this department is capable of and it’s hard for us.”
Modica, like Luna and Duree are city employees and are therefore barred from campaigning for elected officials or ballot measures. Schipske, one of the authors of the dissent against the measure, is not bound by those rules.
She pulled no punches.
“Those guys that were here are all my friends, I love them dearly but they’re full of crap,” Schipske said.
She claimed that the figures that Modica and the chiefs presented were entirely inaccurate and that the cuts made since 2008 weren’t cuts at all and that “nobody lost their jobs.” Schipske said that the real intention behind the measure is that the city officials needed an emergency source of revenue to offset those costs due for CalPERS payments while not creating efficiencies. She even produced a copy of a July 2012 report given by a consultant to the city about cutbacks that could’ve been instituted to save money, none of which she said have been put in place.
Schipske dug into the wording of the measure, stating that the only reason why the city is claiming that it will be spent on infrastructure and public safety is because those were buzzwords that pollster advised city officials would play well with voters. As for the resolution passed by council to prioritize those Measure A funds for those needs, Schipske pointed out it's not only unbinding to this council, but could also be ignored by future councils once these officials leave office.
“Resolutions are not binding,” Schipske said. “They passed a resolution for Meatless Mondays, so they pass resolutions on a lot of things.”
The former councilwoman remarked on the courage of the current elected officials, pointing out that none of them had showed up to address the residents at Deforest last night, but was interrupted by the entrance of Ninth District Councilman Rex Richardson.
As an elected official Richardson can openly advocate for the measure and he did, but not as a councilman; he advocated simply as “Rex”. He localized his argument and pointed to the improvements made to the Atlantic Corridor, noting that if Measure A passes those benefits could be extended to Artesia Boulevard and South Streets. Currently the city’s budget allows for one street a year to be paved in the district. If the voters pass the measure, Richardson said that number would go up dramatically.
“If Measure A passes we will get, in the next three years, more streets paved than in the last 15 years in district nine combined.”
Regarding public safety, Richardson said for the first time since he moved to Long Beach a shooting on his street had occurred, and his wife had advised him his daughter shouldn’t play outside because potential danger. If the measure passes Richardson said he would not only push hard to secure more fire resources in North Long Beach, but also make sure funding goes toward police efforts to curb the gun violence that has already nearly surpassed last year’s figures.
He also sought to debunk the notion that passing the measure would be counterproductive to drawing business to the area, stating that “businesses aren’t going to come to North Long Beach if there’s crime and our streets look terrible.”
He commented on the distrust that has been apparent with some members of the public, stating that with the internet and proliferation of social media, confirmation bias is an easy thing to feed. Finding a media outlet, whether it be national or local, that aligns with your beliefs is as easy as clicking on a link, he said.
The question that could ultimately determine the fate of the June 7 ballot measure is whether 50 percent plus one of voters in Long Beach believe the elected officials in this city are trustworthy enough to have an unbound source of revenue that they’ve resolved to target infrastructure needs with, or if the majority of voters doubt the intentions of those working out of the 14th floor at City Hall.
“It’s human nature, we want to see what we already believe,” Richardson said. “Some people already believe that the city is inherently corrupt or the city is doing a good thing, so you will find what ever you’re looking for. In today’s age of internet, social media and news you can find someone that’s going to validate whatever you’re going to say.”