In his annual “State of the City” address Monday, Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster declared that his city was still moving forward, despite a tough economic outlook and despite the state’s efforts to end to redevelopment agencies throughout California.
“In two essential areas, redevelopment and ‘realignment,’ the state is robbing the future to pay current costs, and setting the stage for our children and grandchildren to be worse off than we are,” Foster said during his speech to hundreds of attendees at the Center Theater in downtown Long Beach.
Last month, the state Supreme Court upheld recent legislation that sought to abolish redevelopment. Hundreds of redevelopment agencies throughout California have now been required to shut down by Feb. 1. These agencies relied on local property taxes. They were commissioned to eliminate blight from the neighborhoods and develop affordable housing.
Gov. Jerry Brown, who advocated for an end to redevelopment, said that these agencies’ shares of local property taxes would be directed to other entities, including police, fire, counties, local activities and schools. The governor stated earlier this month that the move would guarantee these entities one billion dollars.
During his speech, Foster said that Long Beach is faithful to a responsibility to “preserve opportunity for the next generation.”
“And we did it despite an atmosphere in Sacramento and Washington that is caught up in bitter partisan politics and seems destined to impoverish our future for some illusion of present benefit…Redevelopment, while frustratingly misunderstood within the State Capitol, not only helped cities fix themselves, but brought development to areas that would otherwise remain economically stagnant for decades,” Foster said, explaining how the City had developed properties known for drug houses and dilapidated liquor stores.
Although he said that they were working hard to save redevelopment legislatively, he acknowledged that the outlook seemed “grim.” Foster announced that the City Council next week will begin to comply with the provisions that are now required under the new state legislation. He indicated that they will form a new community advisory board and a “reconstitution” of commissions, adding that the City needs to align its departments’ efforts on a range of related processes that involve development and planning.
“Longer term, these changes will mean the art of redeveloping Long Beach continues, albeit quite differently; in essence, we’re breaking up but we’re still friends,” Foster said.
Foster had one sympathizer in the audience who echoed Foster’s disappointment in losing redevelopment. Larry Forester, the mayor from neighboring City of Signal Hill, also decried the decision to end the redevelopment program. Signal Hill is also losing its own agency. After Foster’s speech, the Signal Hill mayor praised Foster’s focus on moving his own City forward.
“We need to reconstruct something to replace redevelopment,” Forester said. “We need to look at what we can do with what we have, and we know we’re going to have less.”
Foster also mentioned a few of the City’s successes, highlighting its ability to maintain its AA- credit rating, deliver a balanced budget and create significant pension reform that the mayor said would save more than $110 million over the next decade. Foster, however, also urged one union, the IAM, to come to an agreement over pension changes.
Foster dedicated a significant amount of time to the local job market in his address. He hailed the city program Pacific Gateway Workforce Investment Network for its efforts to find permanent jobs for 3,100 area residents. It also helps businesses find qualified employees. Foster urged both job seekers and companies looking for employees to take advantage of Pacific Gateway’s resources. The organization’s website is hireLB.com.
Foster also pressed the Council to act on a proposed plan for the downtown area that would provide guidance to future development projects and expand the downtown plan area from 467 to 725 acres.
There were a number of empty seats in the back rows of the Center Theater, but Foster had a number of supporters in attendance.
Among them was former Calif. Gov. George Deukmejian, who formally introduced Foster before the mayor delivered his address.
“I know that this city has faced some very difficult situations in the past year, but Mayor Foster has always been the kind of leader who is not afraid of making tough choices as long as he knows that he’s doing it in the best interest of the city of Long Beach,” Deukmejian said of Foster at the beginning of the event.
Mayor Forester praised Foster’s overall speech.
“But I think Bob Foster touched on it all,” Forester said, describing his counterpart in Long Beach in pragmatic terms.
“He has been a realist in his six years in office, and I really appreciate what he does,” Forester added.
Seventh District Councilmember James Johnson said he appreciated Foster’s emphasis on the future, acknowledging that there were some tough decisions that had to be made soon, including at Tuesday’s Council meeting. Johnson said that the emphasis should be on the City’s long-term plan for the years to come.
“And I think it’s really important that we keep an eye on the real prize which is: can we be financially stable, can we go back and say we did the right thing for taxpayers and residents, or can we say…. we just did the easy thing. And that’s really, I think, the fundamental challenge of our times,” Johnson said.