With Two-Term Mayor Bob Foster
A Very Candid Conversation On A Number Of Issues –
From The Port To The Election Of The Next Mayor
By George Economides - Publisher
September 10, 2013 - When Bob Foster ran for mayor in 2006, he was facing two candidates who each had served two terms on the city council, and through their work and community involvements were well known in the city. Foster prevailed, and most people in Long Beach who follow local government and city issues recognize he was the right choice.
At the time, no one knew that a devasting recession was on the horizon. Foster’s experiences as a small business owner, a state senate and energy commission staffer, public affairs manager, and as president of one of the country’s largest utilities all came into play – none more important than his awareness that fiscal discipline was key to the challenges of a recession. Being thick-skinned and learning to say “no,” became attributes during very difficult economic times.
Most residents who have been here during Foster’s seven-plus years as mayor, haven’t noticed much of a drop-off in city services and programs. That’s a testament not just to Foster, but to the combined efforts of councilmembers and city management and staff. At a time when nearly every city in America was reeling from the recession and forcing layoffs and reducing services, Foster, again drawing on his experiences, was preaching a leaner and more efficient operation.
Today, as a direct result of Foster’s leadership, Long Beach is in better financial shape than most U.S. cities. It’s also a cleaner and greener city, while enjoying job growth in a variety of industries, including healthcare, international trade, technology and the service sector. The city’s infrastructure is in better shape than most people expected, but Foster points out, there is still much to be done. The Business Journal began annual interviews with the mayor of Long Beach back in 1988 when Ernie Kell was the city’s first citywide elected mayor. He was followed by Beverly O’Neill, who served from 1994 through 2006, and now Foster, who will pass the baton to a new mayor next July.
In this wide-ranging, extremely candid interview, conducted Wednesday, September 4, at the Business Journal offices with Assistant Editor Tiffany L. Rider and Staff Writer Samantha Mehlinger asking the questions, Foster talks about the city’s next mayor, saying, “Put ideology aside. Put everything else aside. Who really has the ability to keep the fiscal discipline in place to protect the future?”
LBBJ: Since you’re not running for reelection, have your priorities for the rest of your term changed?
Foster: No. At the top of the list is, making sure that we stay on a fiscally sound, stable basis; clean up the environment; work on keeping the crime rates down; and introduce some technical training in schools. All of these things are still the same.
LBBJ: The city is in negotiations with four labor groups on pension reform. How much do you expect the city to save on an ongoing basis if those four groups agree to reforms?
Foster: I can’t talk much about negotiations because they are ongoing, but we’re going to ask for the same pension contribution that other groups have given. It’s a smaller group when you’re dealing with management, confidential, lifeguards and engineers [roughly 800 employees], so the savings are not large. But the savings to the entire city from all pension reform combined is more than $200 million over 10 years, and I think that’s significant. And it’s also part of the reason we have a surplus this year.
LBBJ: Does Long Beach serve as a model on pension reform for other cities to follow?
Foster: Long Beach is the largest city in the PERS system – the Public Employees Retirement System – and we’ve done about as much as we can do without changing the law or having the constitution changed. I don’t know if we’re a model, but I will tell you that I don’t know of a city that has done anything more than we have done, and there are very few that have done what we have done.
LBBJ: You were unhappy with the loss of the enterprise zone program. Has your opinion on that changed?
Foster: No. I think the State of California has acted in an irresponsible fashion – both on redevelopment and the enterprise zone funds – and they’re connected. Redevelopment and the enterprise fund law are the only tools that we had, I would argue, in California for economic development. And the state has taken both of them away. In the redevelopment area, it’s because it was seeking $1.7 billion to fill the state coffers – something they will never achieve. And in the enterprise zone, it was enabling companies to take tax credits. Now, having said that, both programs needed to be reformed. Both programs could have been reformed, and you could have saved those tools to create jobs and enhance economic activity. The state, in a very shortsighted manner, decided to eliminate redevelopment and reform enterprise zones. And as yet, I don’t know quite what that reform will take.
LBBJ: There has been a lot of activity with PBIDs (property and business improvement districts) in the city. Is that a possibility for replacing economic development?
Foster: It helps. It doesn’t replace it. I think PBIDs are a really useful tool to be able to consolidate areas to provide additional services or enhance existing services. Cleaning the streets, providing some monitors for public safety, being able to enhance facades and those kinds of things. But it doesn’t replace the dollars. We had $100 million a year from redevelopment, and it was a terrific program. Every dollar that we lost in tax increment had been matched five times over from other agencies. It was a great program for the city. In all candor and honesty, the city didn’t abuse that program. It used it the right way. There is nothing that’s going to replace that. I think PBIDs are a great way to unite businesses and residents in an area and provide some enhancement to the quality of life, and a reason for businesses to move in. But they doesn’t replace cash.
LBBJ: What economic development tools might the city explore?
Foster: They’re pretty limited. I think the best thing we can do is to make this place easier in which to do business. We started a couple of things. We have changed our planning and building process. It is now a one-stop shop. If you have a very simple project, you can go in and get your permit in one day. The fees were cut by about a third. Everything is pretty self-explanatory. When you walk in you have good signage. We are not perfect at it, but by and large the employees understand their job is to get some of these projects up and running and online as fast as possible. I have had nothing but compliments on this process since it has been changed.
So that provides an incentive for people. It’s easier to do business here. It’s a little cheaper to do business here. People get their hand held through the process. So that is something you can do. In the mayor’s office, we try to provide whatever assistance we can to new business. But, in terms of financial assistance and the things that redevelopment can do, we’re very limited. I haven’t ruled out trying to put a program together. Quite frankly, there are people around the state who want to recreate redevelopment either through the ballot or through the legislature. I think that’s something we should explore. Now, we would start with a new baseline. In a state that’s hard in which to do business, not having that tool is going to put us in a difficult position. But beyond that, I think you have to start looking at your on regulations. Look at things you can eliminate – the things that may not be necessary – to make the process as simple as possible. And I found that most businesses want to know that they have a partner right next to them that is going to help them navigate that process. That’s been very useful for people.
LBBJ: And you’ve streamlined the operation.
Foster: Yeah. It’s not perfect yet, but it’s really a lot better. The [City Hall 4th floor] service counter works very well, and people have a different attitude. We’ve got a brochure that explains it. We’re trying to make it as user-friendly as possible. And for small businesses, we have a small business registry. We give a bidding preference for small business, and we try to let them know when work is available in the city. So in that registry, they will get notice of things the city or the port are bidding out. Since the inception of the program in 2009, more than $16.2 million in city contracts have gone to small businesses. The number of small businesses in the city’s preference program for city contracts is 2,068.
Another success is the 10,000 Small Businesses program by Goldman Sachs, where you’re getting real training. It doesn’t do any good to give somebody capital if they don’t have a business plan, they don’t understand financing and they don’t have a network. The great thing about programs like Goldman Sachs’, is they provide that. So now you have a business that completes that program, which is ready to receive money. The biggest single problem I see with small business is they don’t have a business plan.
LBBJ: Jobs have been added in the city because of new businesses at Douglas Park and Molina Healthcare adding employees, and, of course, in construction at the port. So why is it that our unemployment rate has gone up monthly over the last six months? It went back up to 11.9 percent in July?
Foster: I don’t know how the statistics are derived. I don’t really understand. You have to wait for seasonally adjusted numbers to compare. Even the president can’t affect unemployment numbers. Let’s be really candid here. The only institution in America that can really affect the economy is the Federal Reserve. All you can do in government is try to make it easier for people to do business and eliminate obstacles. That is just simply the truth. We do know that the port is investing $4.5 billion in projects over 10 years.
LBBJ: Is it because of our high number of low-income residents?
Foster: Could be. I think our poverty rate has certainly gone down. When I came into office, it was getting up to like 22 or 23 percent. But that rate is down substantially.
LBBJ: The Associated General Contractors of America reported today [September 4] that a survey of 700 construction firms found that 74 percent are having trouble finding qualified workers . . .
Foster: There is a mismatch today where we don’t have workers trained for the jobs. A lot of people are working on trying to provide that training. You’re kind of in a seam in the economy. You had a huge, major disruption with the Great Recession. And a lot of people who lost their jobs are never going to get those jobs back. They’re not coming back. But different jobs are here: jobs that have more to do with innovation, jobs that need training in the tech area, jobs that are more highly skilled. People need to be trained for these opportunities.
I went over to the Pacific Gateway Career Transition Center and looked at a training program where people had lost their jobs. And what I heard in that room was actually very encouraging. Almost all of the people said they got very complacent in their job, they didn’t add skills. And they said from now on, they are going to make sure that they are as good an employee as they can be and as highly trained as possible. I think that’s the best protection for keeping a job.
I don’t have the answer to the unemployment rate. I can only do what I can do. What we’ve tried to do is to make it very easy for people to come here. We try to give them the assistance they need. We try to make the process as understandable and as least encumbering as possible. I think we’ve done that, and I think over time you’ll see the economy grow here, and I think you’ll see that employment number move up.
LBBJ: We know that Mike Conway, in his new role as business and property development manager, is working on former RDA properties in the city. Can you give us an update on what’s happening with those properties?
Foster: There are 225 parcels. The process is that we have to put a plan together that the [state] department of finance has to approve. That plan has to be presented in October, I think. To be really candid, we’ve had a pretty good relationship and track record with the state department of finance. We worked very hard, for example, on the Shoreline Gateway East project at Alamitos Avenue and Ocean Boulevard. That project was going to go away. It’s on four different parcels that were going to go into this group [of 225 city parcels], and they were going to sell those parcels. We worked with the department of finance and the governor’s office to keep that project here. The argument was successful, because if you broke it up into four parcels, it would be worth nothing. If you keep it and move forward, both the city and the state are better off. And that got through. That got approved to go forward as a redevelopment project. So I think there are some things you can do with redevelopment if you make a good case. I wish we didn’t have to do any of this, but it is what it is. I think what we’re going to do, is some of those parcels are going to be up for bid; they’ll be out on solicitation. I think there will be a decent amount of interest on those properties.
LBBJ: The money raised goes into the General Fund?
Foster: No. Some of that money goes to the state. We get to pay off some of our debts, I believe, but most of the money goes to the state. That’s how they’re going to make their money.
LBBJ: In the past, you’ve indicated that you would like some charter changes implemented.
Foster: I did? Did I say that?
LBBJ: Every year you say that.
Foster: No, I never said that.
LBBJ: For example, not having the mayor run council meetings.
Foster: I don’t think you really need the mayor presiding over the city council. You could have a mayor that’s, basically, the executive. The city manager reports to the mayor. And you could have a legislative body, a council, that is led by their council president. That may or may not be better. This system has the advantage, in effect, of every Tuesday forcing the mayor and the city council to work together. I think it has other advantages by the mayor sitting there and providing some direction and being able to veto something immediately if it is contrary to his or her policy. This process has seemed to work. Look, this structure took us through the largest economic downturn in the last 80 years. And we came through it now with a surplus. So I don’t think you can fault the structure and say some of the structure is not conducive to the efficient operation of the city. Could it be better? Probably. It’s kind of an evolutionary thing. I think the charter change that occurred in 2007, where the mayor has additional authority and a line item veto and removal power, was very helpful. Those things are all used very sparingly, but they are very important.
LBBJ: You didn’t use the line item veto this year?
Foster: Well, that’s what the next two weeks are about. For example, I made it really clear in my recommendations, if you take the $3.5 million surplus and don’t roll it over next year, I’m going to have a real problem with that. And you know, I meant what I said last night [September 3 city council meeting when the fiscal year 2014 budget was passed]. I think that budget is a remarkably responsible document. Do you know any other city that’s putting away money for unfunded liabilities? Do you know another city that would have taken that city surplus and not used it for ongoing programs? We’re basically going to be structurally balanced for three years. That’s just essentially correct. Honestly structured balance.
LBBJ: You’re making it easy for the next mayor.
Foster: I am indeed. That’s my job. I believe that’s my job. My job is to leave this place better than I found it, and I think I’ve done that.
LBBJ: A couple years ago you wanted to roll the civil service department into human resources. It was defeated by the voters.
Foster: I’ll be really candid. It’s stupid, the way we do it. It’s stupid and an anachronism. I mean, call it what it is. You should have a modern HR department. The problem with that ballot proposition was, it wasn’t well understood and people were misinterpreting that we were doing away with the civil service commission, which is the bulwark of protecting employee rights. No one was doing that. Quite frankly, the civil service department, at times, is an encumbrance to having the hires done. Ask the police department and the fire department. It shouldn’t be this way. I have since put people on the commission who understand the need to modernize the department.
LBBJ: Is there more that can be done to contract-out city services to the private sector?
Foster: I think you want to look at services that could be better performed by the private sector. It’s not just always about saving money. Let me give you an example. If you watched the budget meeting, this came up. In my recommendations, I said, look, we’ve talked for three or four years now about [possibly contracting-out] refuse, towing, street sweeping and IT [information technology]. Let’s get on with it. This is ridiculous. One councilmember came out and said, “Well that’s the one recommendation I don’t agree with. You know, we had this incident with the landscaping contractor in Long Beach. I think that demonstrates the failings of contracting-out.”
I think it actually does the opposite, because I can point to irregularities and problems in animal control, towing, fleet, parks and recreation – I won’t go into them now – that really were very difficult to deal with, that frankly could happen in any business, public or private, that happens when you have human beings involved.
So, the fact that somebody wasn’t performing is not earth-shattering news. It could happen in the private or public sector. But what was interesting is how quickly you could change out the contractor. You found somebody that wasn’t performing, and, basically, from about the time you gave the notice, within 30 days you had another contractor working for you.
LBBJ: So you have performance standards for these contractors.
Foster: Yeah, you do, in the contract. Now try doing that if you try disciplinary action and try to remove somebody who is in a civil service job. How long is that going to take? The point is, services where you need to be nimble and you need to be quick and you need to be able to get things done and you have real standards of performance, might be better performed by the private sector.
Would I contract out financial management? No. I think that’s something you have to have. Do you need a core of public works people? Absolutely. Do you want your own police force? Sure. But does it really matter who does your street sweeping? Does it really matter who does your refuse collection? If you can do that with standards that you create, performance metrics that they have to meet, while treating the employees fairly, both in terms of their wages and benefits, what’s the problem? You don’t sit there and make a defense for public service by saying that someone either didn’t perform or had some illegal or inappropriate conduct. That occurs all over the place.
LBBJ: Aren’t contractors encouraged to use city staff who were previously performing the work?
Foster: If we were to contract out, my preference – and I would argue strongly for this – is that existing employees move over into those jobs.
LBBJ: So you see some movement maybe this year?
Foster: I think you’ll see some movement.
Port Of Long Beach
LBBJ: Let’s talk about the port.
Foster: My favorite subject.
LBBJ: Do you think the port is being fiscally responsible in managing both its current assets and ongoing projects?
Foster: I would say it differently. I would not say they’re being fiscally irresponsible. I think that they need to tighten up their financial controls and be more disciplined about how they spend money. That’s just my view. I am actually a very big fan of the port. Last night you heard from somebody on the council about how important it was to market the port. Quite frankly, that’s the least of the things you have to do. The way you attract cargo here is you become the most effective and efficient port around. That’s what Middle Harbor and the investments [in other projects] are doing – to improve the infrastructure to make us have the ability to move cargo in greater volumes at greater velocities. I think you also need a reputation for a fiscally disciplined port. You have real financial controls in place.
I think the very questionable overrun is on the temporary building [at the airport for harbor department employees]. And I would even add travel. To me, the lack of discipline on travel, where you’ve got one commissioner traveling twice as much as the others, I don’t see how that happens. And for what purpose? The truth is, you could make a rationalization to travel every month of the year. But what is really necessary? I think what’s necessary is major signing ceremonies, like OOCL. I am okay with that. Going over to give a speech? Eh, not so much. I think what you want to do is present an impression and a face to the world that you treat that money, the port’s money, with greater care than you do your own. That’s what a fiduciary does. So somewhere, somehow, I think they really need to take a careful look and review how they’re getting their specs done, how their requirements for various projects are actually coming about, and then what is it they’ve missed in these projects that there are overruns.
Any time you are doing a project as large as the bridge or as large as Middle Harbor, there are going to be unexpected things. I understand that. That is what contingencies are for. But when you outrun the contingencies, you have to ask yourself, do we need some lessons learned here? And I’d like to see that. And they now have, they are going to hire 35 or so engineers. I think they recognize that they need to shore up their engineering side. I would also like to see real strict controls on the finance side. Last night, what we did as a way of imposing discipline is we said, you’re going to cap travel by any commissioner at $40,000 a year. Period.
LBBJ: That’s a lot of travel.
Foster: It is a lot. You want to know where one of them is right now? Close to $85,000. My only point here is, you have to impose some discipline. That’s our job. That’s the mayor and the council’s job. If you see something amiss – I mean no one is trying to fire anybody unless there was inappropriate conduct. But you have to impose discipline here. Okay? If you can’t do it yourself, we’re going to do it. You’re going to have $40,000 and you can change it with a super majority or four-fifths of the harbor commission. Look, there could be some kind of exigency that we don’t know about in the future, so if you have a safety valve four of them can say this is really needed and we have to do it. But you need to impose some discipline.
LBBJ: What about oversight from the city?
Foster: I think that that’s another thing. Every expenditure in the city for travel, at any high level, is scrutinized by the auditor, and we’re going to look at that [for the port as well].
LBBJ: Is there a way for the city engineer or somebody from the public works side to also take a look port projects prior to going out to bid?
Foster: We have developed a more cooperative relationship. I want to give the port some credit here in recognition of the fact that they could probably use some outside help and perspective. We’ve got Mike Conway working with them, for example, on the temporary building [headquarters]. Mike’s got experience in that area, looking at if the lighting is right, if the heating and air conditioning system is right, as those are the elements that are driving the costs up in this building, to see if there are things that you could do cheaper. We already know the answer to that is yes. There’s no reason for this thing to have gotten out of hand like it has [see the story in this editon of the Business Journal].
I think the port is willing now to ask the question, “What happened here? Did our consultant not do their job? Did the internal staff require too much in the way of permanency in the structure?” Who knows? I’d like to see much more cooperation between the port and the city. . . . And I’ve made that case many times to the various commissioners. Some of them embrace it and some of them don’t. There’s still this culture at the port that, “We want our own land, our own language, our own flag, our own currency. We want to be the country of the port, and we don’t want you to interfere with us.” I’m not kidding. That culture has got to change. There’s got to be much more cooperation and integration between the city and the port.
Police At Port, Airport
LBBJ: What do you think about the port’s dual security campus proposal? Isn’t that an example of cooperation between the port and city?
Foster: It did not come without effort. I’ll be really candid with you. I think the optimum structure, if I had a magic wand, would be to have one chain of command for security. But you have a history here, and you can’t discount that. There are some cultural differences, and the port does at least have a point saying that, in addition to public safety it has continuity of operations, which is important. Although I would argue that is kind of everywhere. So, where it used to be that harbor patrol and police, for example, were two separate operations, now there really is a lot of integration. We have a commander overseeing that, who jointly reports to the police chief and the executive director of the port.
Look, you have to start somewhere. I think we’ve started at a good place. They were two separate operations. Now they’re moving into this other structure where there is a commander dedicated to the port. You have people from our police department at the port. The chief has a say in the hires. I think, gradually, it will migrate even further, but I’m much more comfortable now than I was two years ago. I was uncomfortable two years ago about security and the way it was run. It’s better now.
LBBJ: We understand there is a similar movement at the airport. We have a letter from tenants complaining . . .
Foster: We are looking at the airport. We can’t talk about the allegations of that letter. To be candid, we’ve had sworn officers at the airport for years. That structure has been that way since 2006. This is not new. I wouldn’t get too nervous about the letter.
LBBJ: The airport director said he can’t talk about it because of security issues.
Foster: He can’t, and neither can we. I don’t think security at the airport is a problem.
LBBJ: If it were up to you, how would you compromise on the BNSF railway SCIG (Southern California International Gateway) project that as proposed butts up to West Long Beach?
Foster: I would not say compromise. I think what needs to be done is to treat Long Beach residents with respect, at least with a sense that they are human beings that breathe air. Most of their [BNSF] actions are like the traditional impression you have of railroads going back to the octopus days. I think they want what they want and they are going to pursue it and they are not going to be deterred by anyone else’s interests or needs. Now that’s a bit stark. They’re a little bit better than that, but not much.
To protect Long Beach residents, what’s needed, as a minimum, is that the businesses that are there thriving and employing people need to be relocated so those jobs do not leave this area. We need to be able to treat the residents with respect relative to the sound and nearness of the operation. So a buffer zone, and a real sound wall, need to be created. We have this concept of an urban forest, which is basically just trees and shrubs, not a park you walk through, as way to buffer both noise and air pollution from the residents nearby. You want to be able to have pollution control, zero emissions, as a real goal with teeth in it. There are technologies that get you there. They can’t do it right away, but you have to have a real commitment towards it because you have a substantial amount of people living right in that area.
When the BNSF project reaches full capacity, there would be 2 million new truck trips per year, which translates to 5,479 per day. That’s one-way trips. Existing truck traffic appears to be approximately half that. How can you tell me that the air quality in that area is going to be better? They’re not zero-emission trucks. We want to have some commitment to zero emission, and we want a public benefit fund to pay for the forest and also to upgrade the houses along the track. You’ve got houses within 25 feet of that track. They need double- or triple-paned windows, something to deal with the noise that is going to be created. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.
If you look at other major projects, certainly the City of L.A. did it with the TraPac container terminal with the people of Wilmington; you have disconnect here with the fact that the project is in the City of Los Angeles, which I think has acted irresponsibly and not in a humane way at all. But they did it for TraPac when it was their residents, but now this project is in Los Angeles but the impacts are all in Long Beach. Matt Rose, the CEO of BNSF, told me, to my face, that if Long Beach doesn’t want this, “We won’t build it.” Now, we have a 9-0 council vote and a mayor that’s opposed to it, and we’re litigating this issue. I think that is a pretty clear indication that we don’t want it as advertised. I don’t see him stopping. Quite frankly, their chief counsel is just an old-school kind of chief counsel. He’s going to do it his way and everyone else be dammed. I think this is going to wind up costing them a lot of money and delaying them for many years. I heard there are now 18 litigants, including our school district. This is just stupid. I don’t understand why people conduct themselves this way. These are human beings we’re talking about.
LBBJ: It doesn’t sound like the mitigation issues would be too expensive?
Foster: In the long run it will be a lot cheaper. I thought we were making progress during a whole year of discussions. At the last meeting I had with both the CEO and the chief counsel, they basically said, ‘We are not doing anything. Just sue us. We’ll litigate. We’re not going to do anything until the litigation is over and the process is complete.’
LBBJ: Do all of the litigants agree with the steps you have indicated here?
Foster: I think all of them would agree to that. I think some of them may want more. I think this is what we need to protect the people in Long Beach.
LBBJ: So the next step is a court date?
Foster: We’re going to make an attempt to get the major parties in one room with BNSF and the new mayor of Los Angeles. We’ll see. I’m hopeful that Mayor [Eric] Garcetti has a different view and wants to be a better neighbor than the previous administration.
Long Beach Airport
LBBJ: Are you happy with the progress being made at the Long Beach Airport?
Foster: We have an airport? Laughs
LBBJ: Wasn’t the airport one of your key concerns when you were first elected?
Foster: It was. I think that you can rack that up as somewhat of an accomplishment, to get that off of the controversy and off of dead center. You’ve now got a brand new terminal. Everybody loves it. Paradies is in there. They’ve got that thing . . . what do they call that thing? The Marché. It’s another word in the airport world. It’s basically what you would call a food court. It’s all Long Beach businesses. I’ve been through it several times. People are happy. It’s high quality food. I think it’s a great deal. It’s an attractive terminal and easy to use. The goal was to get from the curb through security and at your gate in 20 minutes. They almost always do it faster than that. It’s a great place and I’m very happy with what’s been done there. I think Mario [Rodriguez] is a very capable director of the airport. He’s doing a great job. By the way, we’ve done some things for the environment out there as well. That terminal was built to have solar collectors and is an environmentally sensitive structure as well. I love the airport. The Wall Street Journal said we were one of the top five regional airports.Environment
LBBJ: Since we’ve been talking about environment issues, do you think that Long Beach is a city that is ahead of the curve in terms of cleaning the environment?
Foster: Yes. There aren’t many places that have a port, which was probably the major source of pollution. By everyone’s account, the Green Port policy has been successful and reduced pollution in almost all of the criterion of pollutants, above 70 percent in reductions, well ahead of schedule. More is going to be done. You’re going to see more cold ironing. You’re going to see other equipment being used to handle the ships that can’t cold iron.
I think the advances made in water quality are substantial. When I became mayor, water quality was a big issue. We were constantly receiving bad ratings for our beaches from Heal the Bay. We’ve actually embraced Heal the Bay. We are cooperating with them. We did a survey up the L.A. River to find out what some of the sources were, and we’re getting much better grades. We’ve made improvements to storm drains up the river. We’ve made improvements at some of the pumping stations. In the Alamitos Bay, we had a problem with storm overflow going out into the bay. That is now all going into the sanitation system. It’s made a dramatic difference for our beaches. We’ve cleaned up our air, improved our water.
We do an awful lot internally with clean fleet technologies. All of our trash trucks are LNG (liquid natural gas). We can go on and on. We’re doing an enormous amount for separated bikeways and bike routes, trying to make it much more convenient for people to use bicycles to commute or for recreation. If you add up all of the things, plus what we’re doing at the airport, I can’t think of another city that has done all of those things together. Now, there probably are, but I’m very proud of what we’ve done.
LBBJ: With the one-time dollars in the FY14 budget, is the city finally addressing one of your biggest concerns – infrastructure?
Foster: We don’t have the resources to do all of the things we want to. When we did Measure I [proposed parcel tax with money targeting infrastructure needs, but defeated by voters], we identified about $700 million or $800 million worth of need in streets, public buildings, sanitation systems, all of that stuff. We’re not going to have that money. We’ve been fortunate that both from the stimulus funds and now from one-time dollars, that we’ve had far more money come in than we ever thought we could have without Measure I. It hasn’t come close to Measure I, but it has enabled us to start making a dent in our street problems. We used every bit of the stimulus money we could for infrastructure. This year we have now $61 million in one-time revenues to apply to streets, roads, parks, soccer fields. All of that makes not only an investment in the community but also enhances the quality of life.
I think the good thing about this budget, with one little exception, all of those one-time items have gone for capital improvements, which is the principle we’ve always had here. I think last night’s budget was a great document in terms of investing in the city. Do we need more? Sure, we do. If the price of oil stays where it is, we will always have a little bit to be able to use for infrastructure. I would keep it at the system we have now.
LBBJ: Are there any commission appointments coming up?
Foster: Yes. I’ve got a harbor commission appointment to decide. I think there are three on the water commission. Nick Sramek could be reappointed [to harbor]. I’ve met with Nick and I’m considering that. There are a couple of other candidates.
LBBJ: But you don’t have the openings you had years ago, do you?
Foster: We’ve tried to fill them. It’s not as easy as people think. First of all, I meet with almost every candidate. So it takes time. I would rather have a board go with a couple of vacancies than put someone on there that I don’t know or don’t have some confidence in. You’ll always have people that disappoint you. You try to minimize that. I think it’s important to scrutinize the appointments.
[Later, the mayor’s office informed the Business Journal that out of 237 commission positions, there are 56 vacancies. Of these vacancies, 16 are part of inactive boards, and 15 do not have any applicants – many of these vacant seats are district specific. The mayor is in the process of soon filling at least 25 vacancies.]
LBBJ: From what you outlined earlier, it sounds like improving the environment has been one of the major achievements during your tenure as mayor? What other items would you include on your list of achievements? Foster: At the top of the list is that when I leave the city, it will be far more financially sound than when I became mayor. Pension reform is near the top of that list. That was very difficult to do. People don’t realize that if we had gone to the ballot, even if it passed, we would be litigating it for years. The employee groups would almost certainly sue. That’s been the experience in San Jose and San Diego. You would be years off from the savings even if they materialize. So, I think we did it the most effective way, which was at the bargaining table. I give a lot of credit to the employee groups, particularly the police who stepped up first.
I think cleaning the environment at the port is on that list. Water quality improvements, which we talked about, are on that list. And I would add the ACE Academy [architecture, construction, engineering]. When I first ran, I said I wanted to introduce technical training back into schools. ACE has three or four years of graduates. I’ve worked with those kids and they are extraordinarily sharp. I’m proud of that program.
If you look back at the things that I talked about when I ran for office the first time, I think I’ve been able to do everything except add 100 police officers. I will stipulate that I know more now than I did then and it’s not just the numbers game. I want to make sure the police have adequate forces, but there’s more to police work than just numbers. I think the crime statistics speak for themselves. This is a remarkably safe city now. It really is. I give a lot of credit to the men and women of the police force who are making that happen.
Time As Mayor
LBBJ: What has been the most enjoyable part of your job as mayor?
Foster: First of all, I’ve really enjoyed my time as mayor and I’m going to work until the very end of my term [July 2014]. The most enjoyable and rewarding thing is accomplishing something that you know would not have been done as quickly, or at all, if you weren’t there. There are not a lot of them, but that really is enjoyable; it’s a sense of accomplishment and a sense that you made a difference and that you have added some improvement to the lives of the people in the city. Secondly, by and large, I like being around people. I like the people that I’ve met and I get many compliments from people about how appreciative they are of the job that I’m doing and that they would love to have me run again. I hear that all the time. I get some really great letters from people who indicate they are glad that I was mayor and they can point to improvements in their own life that are a result of that tenure. That’s gratifying. So I’m really comfortable with my decision [not to run]. It is with some regret, but everything comes to an end. I’ve really enjoyed this experience in public service.
LBBJ: Is there anything else that you would like to add?
Foster: Yes. This upcoming election, both for mayor and council, is very important. While for now I’m going to stay out of the race and not endorse anyone – I will leave that option open down the road. One of the things that concerns me is that the progress that has been made, particularly on the financial side, can be pretty easily undone. I think the public needs to be very vigilant with who they choose as their next mayor. I think people have to have confidence in someone with a track record of fiscal discipline, someone who understands the municipal finance system, who has the strength of character to stand up to the multitude of interests out there always demanding something, and say ‘no’ when they have to. That’s really important. I can tell you, from just this budget experience, think what would have happened if we had used one-time revenues for ongoing expenses. You could reverse this surplus in one year to a deficit. And that can happen.
I would urge your readers and the residents of Long Beach to ask the very hard questions. Put ideology aside. Put everything else aside. Who really has the ability to keep the fiscal discipline in place to protect the future? That includes things like putting money aside for unfunded liabilities. That’s a responsible thing to do. I think that’s important. That’s what I’m going to be looking for in anybody I endorse. We’re not out of this economic problem yet. Even if we were, you don’t want to go back to the times that created the hole we put ourselves in. And that could easily happen.