TPR offers this excerpt from Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster’s 2013 State of the City address, delivered on January 15. Foster is currently serving his second term as mayor. He joined the US Conference of Mayors’ Board of Trustees in 2010, and that year was appointed to the ISO’s Board of Directors by Gov. Schwarzenegger. Paramount in Foster’s address is the acknowledgement that although Long Beach’s has survived the fiscal recession, government must resist the temptation to borrow against the future.
“The time is now at hand for us to rebuild our essential assets and restore some much needed services. We are now poised to accelerate our investments in the future.” -Mayor Bob Foster
Thank you to the various attendees and special guests.
Welcome to residents from across the City who are watching from their homes and places of work as this speech is again streaming live over the web. Welcome all to the beautiful Center Theater in Downtown Long Beach.
The requirement to deliver the State of the City is part of our City’s charter and I am proud to continue the tradition of a speech accessible to the entire City.
Because above all else, this speech is the annual application of democracy’s demand that citizens be informed of how well their government is performing.
It is my pleasure tonight to tell you that we have successfully come through a very difficult time and fortunately emerged a stronger City for it. The experience reminds me of a sign I saw on a telephone pole recently. It read “lost dog, black and grey German Shepard, walks on three legs, blind in one eye, missing one canine tooth, neutered, answers to the name Lucky.”
While the economy does not yet have the strength we all desire, growth has returned, employment is modestly up, business activity is increasing and this City continues on the road to better financial footing.
The increase in economic activity in the form of consumer spending, the rebound in the real estate market and the up tick in development projects provide an important barometer on revenue levels that have been unpredictable for the better part of 4 years.
More importantly, your City government took difficult and proactive steps vital to healing our broken finances.
I stood before you last year and made the difficult pledge to bring true reform to Long Beach public pensions. It was a difficult path but this much was certain: I was going to implement these reforms on behalf of this City even if that meant asking you the voters to take action when employee groups would not.
I am very proud to report that after much time and toil and with the great cooperation of our City employees, we now have substantial and meaningful pension reform across the City.
Employees gave up their contracted raises in order to pay a greater share of their pensions. They agreed to benefit reductions that are more in line with fiscal reality. These actions put our finances on a sustainable path; one that protects both the City and employee in the future. I am grateful to and proud of each of you who cast a ballot in support of the City’s common good.
All in, these pension reforms will save this City nearly $250 million dollars over the next decade, sparing draconian cuts and maintaining the outstanding service levels that the residents of Long Beach deserve.
The time is now at hand for us to rebuild our essential assets and restore some much needed services. We are now poised to accelerate our investments in the future. We can advance the far more joyful work of rebuilding and catalyze the energy of this great City.
Having weathered the tempest we should also take a moment to reflect on the past. We must understand and learn the lessons of the last several years; what was done right and what was done wrong. We must also take time to celebrate our success and provide a path and a future vision for the city we love.
First the lessons: I believe providing for the future and creating a smoother and better path for those that come after you is the first moral principle in government. In short, our primary responsibility is to assure that opportunity is available for the next generation.
Yet, when you look at troubled governments, the most common element is spending beyond their means, beyond fiscal capacity, in effect, borrowing from the future. There are little or no reserves for poor times; no provision for emergencies; and little concern for the next generation. Abraham Lincoln said it best: “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”
I know political forces, however worthy the cause may be, are always present to make it almost irresistible for elected officials to spend recklessly. There are always too many needs and not enough resources. There is always the next election, groups to satisfy, campaigns to win - the choices are rarely easy.
Strong character is needed to resist these temptations and prioritize the greater good over your own political benefit. The public deserves that you treat its money with more care than you would your own.
In Long Beach, during the flush period in the early part of the last decade, rather than reserve funds from the absence of pension payments or continue to make payments and create pension reserves, we increased benefits. It was the easy choice. We had the money and were assured we would never have to make another pension payment.
More recently, with the help of a majority of the City Council standing firm on fiscal policy, our City maintained its bond ratings. In an era when downgrades were common, Long Beach was a standout.
Indeed, the rating agencies noted that part of the reason was our policy of not using one-time revenue for on-going expenses. In a welcomed abundance of caution, Fitch’s rating service reminded us that to deviate from that policy would trigger a negative action on their part.
With better times on the horizon, let us please not forget these lessons. Please let us not make the same mistakes. And let us hold fast to the disciplines we have adopted. We can do better, we should do better, indeed, we must do better. The well being of the next generation depends on it.
So what is that future? This is my seventh State of the City Speech and the first one in which I feel confident in saying that the hard work, and adherence to sound fiscal policy is paying off; we are at a point of real optimism. There will be revenue to do more and we must be judicious in its use.
So let’s take just a moment to do something we simply do not do enough of in this great City: Let’s look back and take just a moment to celebrate our successes.
Wouldn’t we all love to be residents of a place ranked among the top digital cities, among the best at utilizing social media:
A City awarded as a top walkable city and an internationally recognized bike friendly city.
A City with an award winning cable tv channel;
With national award winning neighborhoods;
And noticed nationally for excellence in our financial management.
We would all be proud to reside in a city singled out by the Human Rights Campaign for its inclusion of lesbian and gay individuals in municipal law and policy;
A City applauded for a progressive development plan in a Downtown that continues to grow as convention destination without equal.
A City with such an excellent athletic tradition that it can claim some association with, if not intense pride in, 32 Olympic athletes and 15 medals they earned in London this summer?
Well, those are all accolades and accomplishments bestowed on this great City of Long Beach in 2012.
There were many enhancements to our economic foundation as well; none more apparent, more needed - and perhaps more overdue -- than the new concourse at Long Beach Airport.
The massive construction effort in the Port of Long Beach continues. The billion-dollar Middle Harbor project is on track to receive its first container in 2015 and having toured the site I can tell you it is a stunning display of engineering and logistics even before a single ship has docked.
Last week we officially kicked off construction to rebuild the Gerald Desmond Bridge, soon to be one of California’s most iconic structures, complete with bicycle lanes for the intrepid cyclist. Little known about the project is that it is financed through a unique partnership between the City and the State of California borne from necessity and a little creativity. I can tell you first hand it wasn’t easy, but this design-build project is projected to cut 6 - 12 months from construction time and save an estimated 5 -10% in construction costs over original estimates.
In all, over $4 billion of construction - and 4,000 construction jobs annually -- will cement our port as the place to send your cargo. We will move it faster, greener and in greater volumes than anyone in the country. And to demonstrate that point, this past December was the best in the Port’s history, yielding the largest container volumes of any December ever before.
Thank you to the Harbor Commissioners and Harbor Department staff for their outstanding work providing employment to thousands and making sure the future is strong and prosperous.
Speaking of jobs, our economic development moved at a brisk pace this year. The City’s Small Business Enterprise program saw a 25% increase in registrants over last year. Getting your business registered is the first step in accessing City purchasing contracts and I am very proud to report that we again improved on that count as well. Long Beach-based businesses earned $82 million in sales through City purchasing contracts. That accounts for over one-third of the total purchasing dollars - and represents a 5% increase over last year despite reductions in overall City expenditures.
We welcomed numerous large businesses to our City: Ignify is now located downtown; Airgas, L.D. Products, and Rubbercraft in East Long Beach; and the RMD Group now calls North Long Beach home.
Boeing, our iconic and historic partner, added more than 150 engineering jobs right here in Long Beach. Despite a continuing transition of the C-17 workforce, Boeing’s investments in other business lines within the company provide a real indication that the last aircraft manufacturer in California has a strong future in Long Beach.
Our City partners in business improvement districts across the City continued to do fabulous work to cultivate our commercial corridors. Just two examples: 70 new businesses opened or relocated in and around Bixby Knolls Improvement Area this past year and the Downtown Long Beach Associates report 552 new jobs in their membership area. Whether new restaurants, design and technology firms or manufacturing companies, each has discovered that Long Beach is a great place to live and work.
The Convention and Visitors Bureau continues to set the standard and reports that occupancy rates now exceed 2007 levels, which previously marked historic highs. Over the next several months, we will complete state of the art upgrades that promise to make the Long Beach Arena among the most innovative and creative event spaces in the nation.
Construction is nearly completed on the new Deukmejian Court House and construction has begun on the new home for Molina Health Care, the old Press-Telegram Building. These projects have the potential to add many hundreds of new jobs and create new corridors for robust commerce in our City.
We have approved an agreement to begin development of the new Shoreline Gateway project bringing more life to the eastern side of downtown.
And the approved Downtown Plan makes new projects easier to approve and faster to build. Seven new structures are either completed or near completion at Douglas Park. And with the acquisition of the enormous 717 facility across the street by the world-class Sares-Regis Company, I am confident more high-quality development is on the way.
There is nothing more frustrating to new businesses or residents looking to make improvements to their homes than a protracted and confusing, user-unfriendly building permit process. And most frustrating to me, this is often the first and most substantial interaction outside developers and businesses will have with the City. We better get it right.
It has been my personal crusade to make this process easier, user-friendly, and turn the culture in Development Services from that of regulators into facilitators.
We now have a planning and permit process second to none. It’s one-stop, in one location, and easy to understand. The efficiency improvements have allowed us to save you money, reducing fees by nearly one-third. I am most proud to report that our customer approval ratings are now over 90% positive under the new program.
None of this is meant to say we are not without our challenges. Our public safety resources, like every department in this City, have been under tremendous financial strain. These fiscal challenges coincided with a policy decision in Sacramento called “realignment” that pushed many criminals back on the streets instead of locked up where many still belong.
I highlighted this decision in last year’s speech and nearly every city and county in California is struggling with its effects, seen most acutely as a spike in property crimes.
We continued our work to make Long Beach a sustainable city. The long hard process to improve our recreational water quality is paying off. In the summer, 93% of our beaches received A grades from Heal the Bay.
We’ve added Recyclebank to our waste and recycling programs. This gives even more incentives to residents to increase recycling and should help the City improve an already impressive nearly 70% waste diversion rate.
We employed 20,000 community service hours to collect 1,250 tons of litter from alleys. Our Parks and Recreation Department saved 33,000 gallons of water and we replaced the old inefficient and costly lights in City Hall and City Place garages with LED lights, saving $58,000 a year and conserving electric energy.
Open space in a built up city is always critical and 2012 saw the City continue to stretch and creatively work to expand parks and open space. Projects such as the Orizaba Park expansion, McBride Park Teen Center, McBride Skate Park, the Beach Restrooms, and El Dorado Nature Center Improvements were all completed.
Work is underway at Craftsman, Baker, Willow Springs, Alamitos Parks and Harvey Milk Park. The soccer fields at Drake/Chavez and Seaside Park are in process. We will also renovate the Leeway Sailing Center and continue on rebuilding all of the City’s marinas. The massive effort on the large, centrally located Chittick Field will continue after the rainy season and Longview Point at Willow Springs Park had an unveiling celebration this past 4th of July.
Finally, we have improved our roads and other infrastructure with the limited resources we have. We repaired 42 miles of streets, trimmed 28,000 trees, cleaned 226,500 graffiti sites, and filled over 48,000 potholes.
So Long Beach has had a good year; we have accomplished much, and weathered a difficult financial time; now what do we do? Where do we go from here?
“A politician needs the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month and next year. And to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn’t happen,” said the ever-quotable Winston Churchill.
My crystal ball is no better than yours, so I’m not going to predict the future. We do, however, need to move into a new phase of our history. Much still needs to be done and we must focus intently on structures, systems and programs that accelerate the rate of investments in our future.
Our streets, sidewalks, public buildings, and systems all need repair. In the coming year, it will be my purpose to develop a systemic and citywide program that prioritizes repairs and efficiently utilizes our resources for the greatest good.
We need to modernize our City with more technological systems to improve communications, speed the diagnosis of problems, improve our response, and integrate our resources.
Environmental improvement should be a constant policy for any great city. Improving our air, water, open space, and reducing our resource use will make our City a better and more desirable place to live, work, and play.
We have made significant progress on cleaning the air from Port activity. I mentioned the improvements to our beach water quality, but more needs to be done to expand our partnerships with upstream cities along the LA River, the largest source of pollution on our coastline.
The next big project should be an increase the amount of land under public control in the Los Cerritos Wetlands and to restore the Wetlands themselves.
This is one of the major gateways to our City and it too, forms an impression of who and what we are. It is clearly better than two or three years ago, but both esthetically and functionally, restoration will improve the area.
Finally, we need to make sure that we are doing everything we can to increase commerce in our City. It is the best answer to the need for more revenue. More sales mean more sales tax. Higher property values mean more property tax. There really isn’t a secret formula.
Our improved process in planning and building will help; there is nothing more comforting to a potential business than knowing that they have a partner to walk them through any process, attempt to remove roadblocks, inform them of available assistance, and link them to other resources.
We do much of this now in a workable partnership between the Mayor’s Office, Development Services, Asset Management and Workforce Investment Board resources. Our next step is to further fine-tune our organization to assure that we are deploying our top talent into service on the vital mission of enhancing opportunities to capitalize on growth and job creation within the private sector.
I can’t fix worker’s comp, or the state regulatory process or tax code or any of the things you always hear make California a tough place to do business. But I can make sure that this City cultivates entrepreneurship, connects businesses with resources, is aggressive in getting your business permitted and putting our property stock to the highest and best commercial use.
There will be a great temptation to use one-time revenue for on going programs, particularly programs that have been reduced. We must avoid that trap. Fitch’s rating service has given policymakers fair warning; shame on us if we make the mistake of not listening.
We also have far too much to rebuild and a long way to go to truly modernize this City. The future demands that we do the right thing and create a place that is safe, attractive, well functioning, efficient, and full of opportunity for our young people.
Recently, I spoke to a group of students representing each of the City’s high schools as part of Youth Leadership Long Beach. Most of them wanted a future involved in the political process.
I was asked how I liked my job, why I did it, how I went about it each day and why there was so much conflict in politics. The students were very focused on the “how” of government. They were asking questions to understand and help develop some sense of what politics really was all about.
It was an early morning, my first meeting of a long day and right around the time the fiscal cliff discussions began to take center stage in our national debate.
So you can imagine that my first thoughts were not always constructive. I almost used a comment attributed to Napoleon that, “in politics stupidity is not a handicap.”
But I refrained.
Their questions allowed me to reflect on some of the essential reasons we have conflict and protracted policy debates.
I told the students that we should all remember that our own experiment in self-government is designed to cure defects in previous democratic societies, many of which ended badly and rather quickly because they succumbed to chaos and tyranny.
Our system is foremost designed to prevent tyranny either by one faction or individual. Hence it is structured to play interest off against interest not only between each level of government but within each level of government achieved through checks and balances and separation of branches.
The price we pay for preservation of our Constitution is often the conflict, frustration, and near glacial speed of government.
I thought it important to reflect on this notion given the brinksmanship we see in modern day politics. At the very least, I offered these thoughts to try and explain a context where that friction may be appreciated rather than scorned.
I spoke about the importance of having fundamental beliefs of what was good or bad or right or wrong. You needed to act accordingly, but never to make the mistake of thinking you have absolute knowledge.
And then I added, “Believe it or not I have been wrong on occasion.”
Meeting another party halfway, but still in the right direction was not a flaw. None of us have perfect understanding or information. What is important, however, is never to divert from the path of improving the lives of the people you serve. Not to tell them how to live, but instead work to improve their opportunities and provide tools for a better life.
Finally, I stated that if you at any time put your own interests and needs ahead of those you serve, then you have failed. You have broken faith with the covenant between you as an elected official and the public; your governance equation will not solve.
My purpose in relating this story is to urge each of us to be less hasty with negative judgments and disparaging remarks toward our institutions and those that occupy them.
Frustration and cynicism about government abound in our country. With time, an overly negative view has a corrosive effect on our public life. We become weary of the partisan fights, the brinksmanship, and the slow pace of reform or progress. Worst of all, we become cynical.
There are moments when this cynicism strikes me as well.
It helps to remember that the framers of our democratic republic were well schooled in history and chose durability over efficiency. Much of the conflict and endless debate is part of a larger design intended to protect us from actions inflamed by passions of the moment or the demagogue, or those who would seek to lead us only for their own ends.
My responsibility is to use my authority on your behalf; to provide safety today and opportunity tomorrow. To make sure your tax dollars are spent well and that sound financial principals govern our conduct.
I will do everything I can and use every power of my office to assure that resources are used consistent with that imperative. It is my part of the equation I spoke of earlier and it’s my responsibility to us and our children and grandchildren. Never losing sight that all of this is to ensure a better and smoother path for those that follow.
It is my honor and pleasure to serve, represent and lead this City. I look forward to the future with great optimism. I know that together we can make this City one that adheres to the first moral principal of government: make better the future for those who follow.
You have my pledge to work tirelessly and continue in my efforts to make that vision a reality. Thank you for participating in our democracy and goodnight.