Q&A: Mayor Robert Garcia talks budget, coronavirus, and the loss of his mother

David Sommers, publisher of the Long Beach Post and Long Beach Business Journal, spoke with Mayor Robert Garcia this week about the city budget, the short- and long-term impacts of the COVID-19 health pandemic, and the loss of Garcia’s mom, who died of the virus on July 26 at age 61. 

DAVID SOMMERS: You have many significant challenges around you in your professional and personal life right now, including that COVID-19 has hit home with the death of your mother, and your stepfather still in the hospital. How are you doing?

ROBERT GARCIA: Losing my mom has been really tough and hard on my family. She was my best friend and just the absolute world to me. At the same time, I’m the mayor of our city. And it’s a job that I take very seriously. And it’s one that I signed up for and it’s a responsibility that right now needs leadership and my focus.

DS: Let’s start with the release of the city budget recommendation this week—the word that keeps coming up to describe this budget and fiscal year ahead is ‘uncertainty.’ What’s the word you would use to describe this budget, and how is this budget different or unique from previous years?

RG: I think uncertainty is certainly correct.

We don’t know a lot about what the future is going to look like as it relates especially to COVID and economic recovery. I’ve been telling folks to understand the seriousness of what’s ahead of us and that it’s unprecedented.

This is the largest health epidemic and the largest economic crisis that we have faced in our lifetime. It’s incredibly serious. And people need to understand that it’s not going to be solved overnight.

We have to take bold actions in the future. We’re going to have to do things differently. And we’re going to have to, as a community, get serious about fighting COVID-19.

The sooner we can get past this health crisis, the better we can also rebuild our economy back. But we can’t build the economy back until we have this virus under control. And not until we have our businesses fully able to open, supporting their workers, selling goods, serving customers in restaurants and bars. We’re not there yet. But we need to be if we’re going to bounce back our economy.

DS: Much attention and reaction has focused on the changes proposed to the LBPD budget and how policing and public safety could or should work in Long Beach. What are the other things in the budget proposal that are noteworthy?

RG: There’s a lot of focus around public safety and health, and rightly so. And that’s going to be a big part of the discussion. But there’s a lot in this budget that is important.

One is, as we’re seeing these huge deficits obviously, because of COVID-19 really limits our ability to grow, I am proud that we are not making any cuts in the health department. We’re in the middle of a health crisis. And it’s really the only department that is growing and that we’re investing in, because we’ve got to be prepared for the future.

We’re also investing in programs that revolve around after school programs, new park programs, and we’re still in the midst of this huge infrastructure investment because of Measure A, and that continues. The amount of infrastructure work we’re doing in street repair and public facility repair is still the largest that we have done in decades. So that continues, separate from the focus on the pandemic and the economic slowdown that we’re in.

We also have to really think about economic inequality that’s going to happen and hit us in the future. We’re funding different types of programs to help working people get by. We’re bringing in an economic equity specialist to lead innovative programs like public banking and guaranteed income, which are really going to be the future tools for cities to help vulnerable populations and people that need economic support.

We have continuing support to ensure that we’re building more affordable housing, we also have an impressive amount of money in homelessness, over $50 million, we still will have a homelessness crisis. Once we get past the COVID-19 crisis, that crisis is still here.

In fact, the national eviction crisis ahead of us is going to even exasperate homelessness even more. So there’s a lot of focus on homelessness, a lot of focus on getting people into homes and into services that they need.

The last thing I’ll add is there were some cuts that were being proposed by staff that I really pushed back on. And I’m glad that I think the council is going to agree to those changes. It’s not cutting our libraries any further, not instituting new fees for sports, and making sure that some of the critical services that residents expect, we keep them in house that we’re not just gonna start contracting everything out, because oftentimes, that was the worst service solution for residents.

DS: What are the things you’d like city residents to understand or keep in mind about this budget proposal and the challenges of the fiscal year ahead?

This is the largest deficit that we have obviously faced as a city in a very long time. It’s directly related to what’s happening across the country and across the world. The second thing is the city is still going to function well, and we’re still going to deliver quality services.

Even with this pandemic, this is a huge city, this is a $2.6 billion budget, we still have a lot of work to do. We’ve got to make sure that we provide a port that works for the world and that our airport is functioning.

We’ve got to make sure that people’s trash gets picked up like normal. That when someone has an emergency, and they need help, they’ll be able to call and get that help—that a paramedic will be at their door. We’re going to make sure that water remains clean and our parks are taken care of.

So all those basic needs, that really makes someone’s quality of life, why families are living here, we’re going to keep that intact. Long Beach is going to remain a great place to live and work.

DS: There’s a deficit shortfall in this budget proposal, but there is some new money too in support of elements of the framework for reconciliation recommendations. Is this budget progressive enough, does it go far enough to meet the demands of the movement and moment and immediate reforms called for by thousands of people who took to the streets?

RG: Any budget or policy can always be more progressive. And there’s still a lot of work to do.

What’s being presented in the budget is a great reflection of new investments and moving forward. And in many ways, a fresh start at the way we’re looking at racial equity.

I am really proud of the work the team has done in proposing very serious reforms to take on systemic racism within our government institutions. I’m really proud of the racial equity work that’s happening. I think as a country and certainly as a city, we understand that the pace of progress has not been fast enough.

And people are demanding faster, and bolder change, and they’re right. The budget and certainly the framework are only parts of the work to support this movement. They shouldn’t be viewed as the only things that we’re going to do and it shouldn’t be viewed as an end to this work, they should be viewed as a launching pad for the future.

DS: Looking at the ‘Framework for Reconciliation’ recommendations and the first report, what are the concrete changes you expect to see occur in our city? What are the most significant, impactful reforms likely to be implemented?

There are some significant and impressive recommendations. To highlight a few areas that are key, one is the focus on what implicit bias means in the workplace. What does it mean in the way folks are hired? What does it mean in the way we provide services, whether it’s services at a public counter, or in policing, or in housing?

Those are real issues that, as a country, we have made some good progress, but we are so far behind on understanding that racism and the history of racism has ingrained itself into not just into some people but into some institutions and the way they operate. And they’ve been this way for a long time.

And so we’re going to do everything in our power to break those down within our own government, but also within the other institutions within the city and those that we work with.

There’s also this broader idea of recognizing that there is a significant challenge, and that we need the whole city organization to work together through training, through the ability for staff to be empowered, to have programs to support people who are either marginalized within the city and outside the city. Those are all significant.

I think there’s also some similar recommendations that relate to funding. So we are really restructuring and creating an office of equity that is funded, that can continue to do good work and expand that work, by elevating that work into the city manager’s office, by expanding what that staff kind of looks like so that there’s more folks involved.

There are a lot of recommendations, they’re not all going to be done overnight, but I’m proud of the work.

DS: Earlier this summer, we saw the state start to rollback parts of the closures that had been lifted. We expected this to last a few weeks, but many industries and small businesses are still in limbo, awaiting word on what’s going to happen next and when. Can we expect the state to provide new guidance soon—some of the rollbacks lifted? When do you think that will happen?

RG: The state is really in the driver’s seat as it relates to reopening. So there is a statewide approach now in place that is in some ways stronger today than it was early on in the crisis.

We don’t have any indication that there’s going be some additional reopenings anytime in the near future, but if the numbers keep heading in the right direction and you’re starting to see a leveling off of positivity rate, granted, there are some concerns at the state level with some of this data reporting that is happening. But even with that, it does appear that there is some good progress being made around positivity rate, hospitalizations, certainly the mortality rate, so if those trends continue and we start to make progress, I think you are going to see the economy begin to slowly reopen. But it’s hard to predict when that’s going to happen because honestly these things could change week to week.

We’re in a holding pattern. We are as open as we are probably going to be until we see additional improvements. And certainly the city can’t move any faster than the state allows.

DS: With the city facing a multi-year deficit, can we expect to see advocacy or push to reopen businesses and sectors that generate sales tax revenue that flows into the city coffers?

RG: We want our businesses, our tourism industry, our hotels, all of our amazing small businesses and restaurants—we want all of them open as soon as they can be, but safely, and we’re just not there right now.

I think we can all agree that the single most important thing right now is saving human lives and ensuring that we get this virus under control. If we were to reopen too soon and numbers started going back up, we would just go back to reversing the reopenings. And it would be even more devastating for our local and national economy.

So I think the approach we have now, which is a cautious one, while very difficult for a lot of small businesses and workers, is one that is going to kind of guide the state moving forward.

We should not rush things, we should not sacrifice, particularly the elderly and seniors for opening up too quickly. We need to listen to the doctors and the statisticians and those that will be guiding these opening decisions.

DS: There’s been significant organized effort recently in some of our major economic sectors to coordinate advocacy, get businesses and spaces more widely reopened, and get employees back to work—local restaurants talking about launching an association, or starting a local chapter of the California Restaurant Association, also Long Beach is part of a coordinated statewide effort in the hospitality and tourism sector advocating for the importance of our convention and tourism industry and its economic power. Are you concerned at all about the organized efforts? Any concerns that they could see a significant and permanent loss in a large number of our local restaurants of the sustained loss of our hospitality and tourism sector?

RG: I love seeing our restaurants organizing the way they are. I know that the tourism and convention industry is doing the same thing.

There has to be a stronger voice, not just locally but also statewide. I personally am a foodie, I know, Matt and I essentially ate out every day because we’re terrible cooks. I love our restaurants. And I know so many of our owners and workers and it breaks my heart what’s happened.

And so I think being organized and being able to advocate with a stronger voice, I welcome that. I encourage restaurants to get involved. Because I do worry about restaurants not being able to ever reopen and we already see some of that happening in the city.

And I think the same is true for tourism. Tourism is one of our biggest industries. So when we are ready to welcome folks back to Long Beach as it relates to tourism and conventions, we need to be ready and it’s not just about being ready. It’s about financial support too.

The federal government has woefully underfunded recovery efforts. Restaurants should be receiving way more direct support from the federal government.

Our tourism industry needs a full COVID CARES package to recover and bring back and support our hotels.

The business loans that have happened already up to this point, and some of the other programs are not enough or are too small. Our businesses need more and our workers need direct guaranteed income as well.

It’s amazing how much money there is in Washington to do other things, but not to do this. They need to move faster, more aggressively in addressing this economic uncertainty.

DS: You spend a lot of time talking with business owners and operators. What are the major concerns you hear? What are the things you want to want to share with those you haven’t connected with about the city’s economic response, how CARES Act local funds will be used and deployed, or about what’s ahead for local businesses and employers?

RG: I talk to business owners every day. And what they’re going through is unprecedented and terrible. Obviously, there’s only so much that we can do as a city to provide support. We want them to get past this moment to survive.

We’re doing everything we can to lobby and get money in here. We’re lobbying for federal and state support, I think we are going to be successful in that in the next few months to get more money directly to our small businesses and business owners. We want to make sure that when reopening happens, that we’re going to do so in a way that’s safe, and we’re going to provide the tools necessary for them to be able to do so.

We’re looking at canceling fees like business license fees, and doing extensions, all of which is also being worked on at the City Council level.

Anything that we can do, we will continue to do so. But my promise to all of them is we’re going to continue to make Long Beach a great place to do business. We want to have a strong booming economy. We had one leading up to this crisis. I hope we can bounce back better than ever.

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David Sommers is publisher of the Long Beach Post. As the publication’s top leader, he is responsible for everything from editorial and advertising to technical and corporate operations. On any given day, you can find him meeting with advertisers, schmoozing with city leaders and poring over tough news decisions. He’s also responsible for fixing the copy machine, setting up officer furniture and keeping the newsroom well-stocked with paper towels and coffee pods.
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