In last State of the City speech as mayor, Garcia focuses on pandemic recovery

Mayor Robert Garcia delivered what’s expected to be his final State of the City address Wednesday, promising a robust recovery from the pandemic that has thrown Long Beach into seemingly constant uncertainty in recent years.

The marquee speech, used to lay out the mayor’s priorities for the city, was Garcia’s eighth such address—and almost surely his last. Garcia announced in December that he’ll forego pursuing a third term as mayor in favor of running for Congress.

In a scaled-down version of his annual event, which previously featured cheering audiences and dramatic slides, Garcia struck an optimistic tone that the city would rebound from the past two years that were marked by revolving business closures, rapidly spreading infections and the loss of over 1,000 residents to the coronavirus.

“The state of our city is strong—because our people are strong,” Garcia said, speaking from outside the Terrance Theater in Downtown Long Beach.

Part of the recovery, he said, will be the launch of programs funded through the Long Beach Recovery Act, which will provide tens of millions in aid to businesses and non-profits through state and federal funding distributed during the pandemic.

That emergency aid delayed what could have been massive cuts to city services in the budget approved by the City Council in September. Despite the temporary reprieve, next year’s budget could face a deficit as high as $36 million assuming the city doesn’t receive another lifeline of state or federal dollars.

Garcia announced Tuesday that a long-promised universal basic income program, which will provide 500 households with benefits such as $500 monthly for a year, will begin accepting applications in a few weeks.

Other new programs on the horizon include free bus passes for K-12 and community college students and a centralized enrollment system for universal pre-K, he said.

Garcia touted the city’s successes in combating the pandemic with 86% of adults now at least partially vaccinated, a number about on par with the countywide percentage of 85.6% for all ages. He praised the city for being among the first in providing the vaccine to teachers, dockworkers and other frontline professions back when supply was constrained.

Even as he touted a coming recovery, Long Beach is still in the midst of a surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the omicron variant. But Garcia pointed out that Long Beach quickly adapted by expanding its testing capability. The city is averaging 6,000 tests a day in 2022 compared to the hundreds of daily tests it averaged last summer.

“A huge thank you to our entire health care community over these last two years,” Garcia said. “We are forever grateful to all of you and you are all our heroes.”

The ability to find a testing appointment and the amount of time required to take one still remains as obstacles to residents trying to figure out if they’ve been infected, with lines in the city routinely taking hours to get through.

And while Long Beach has outpaced some other cities in vaccine uptake, several city departments continue to lag behind the general public—including the fire and police departments where only 70% of firefighters and 60% of police officers had shown proof of vaccination as of Dec. 28.

Garcia did not mention Long Beach’s looming vaccine mandate for city workers, which is still mired in negotiations with the city’s employee associations. The city’s police and fire unions have objected to the proposed mandate, and there’s been no deadline announced for city workers to get vaccinated.

Garcia noted that crime in the city has decreased since the first six months of 2021 when shootings in the city surged dramatically.

“That points to a hopeful sign that we are well-positioned to make our city safer and return to pre-pandemic safety levels,” Garcia said. “I strongly believe every person in our community deserves to walk down their street or neighborhood and feel safe.”

Nevertheless, year-over-year statistics show Long Beach suffered through more shootings last year than in any of the previous five years. Overall, there was a nearly 8% increase in violent crime in 2021, but Garcia pointed out the murder rate remained flat in Long Beach. That’s in contrast with other big cities like Los Angeles, where homicides were on the upswing.

While Long Beach has seen over 4,700 new housing units built during his time as mayor, Garcia said the city will seek federal and state help to continue construction to alleviate the city’s housing affordability crisis. Long Beach was tasked with creating space for over 26,000 new units by 2029 through the most recent regional housing needs assessment from the Southern California Association of Governments.

Garcia celebrated the record-breaking cargo volume seen by the Port of Long Beach this year, which processed over 9 million cargo containers. A backlog that at one point saw 86 ships anchored off the city’s coast has been whittled down to 14 as of Tuesday.

The “doom and gloom predictions of empty store shelves and a ruined holiday never happened,” Garcia said.

And an infusion of federal funding could soon help speed up the construction of on-dock rail that could help process ships faster in the future, Garcia said.

One ship not mentioned by Garcia during his address was the Queen Mary. The future of the currently shuttered tourist attraction has now become a problem with a price tag that could be as high as $500 million, depending on what the city decides to do with it.

The City Council took the first steps in September to possibly transfer the decaying ship to the Port of Long Beach, which could unburden the city’s general and Tidelands funds from paying for repairs but would pass along the financial headache to the port.

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.