The Great Recession delivered a one-two punch to Culver City, as it did to most other California cities. Culver City received reduced levels of state and federal funding and took in less from local revenue sources. Compounding that was the loss in 2012 of redevelopment, our primary engine for economic growth in Culver City.
As a result, City Councils past and present have been forced to cut back on staff and employee benefits to balance our budget. We have taken these steps reluctantly, knowing that we were asking our staff to maintain with fewer resources the high level of public services residents have come to expect. Even with those reductions, we were forced to dip into our reserve funds to meet expenses. If that use of rainy-day money continued, the city would within a few years deplete its entire reserve fund.
In the summer of 2012, this City Council, of which I am a part, addressed the issue by placing on the ballot a half-cent sales tax, which was projected to generate $8 million annually and close our structural budget deficit. Culver City voters passed the measure with nearly 75% approval, the second-highest vote for a tax measure in the state that year. This allows us to keep our heads above water.
But significant issues loom, and they will further challenge our capacity to maintain our fiscal security and stability.
Winning Back Our Redevelopment Projects
Council members and city staff continue to fight to win back control of our redevelopment projects, most notably Parcel B downtown; Washington-National TOD (Transit Oriented Development) at the Expo station; and the Market Place at Washington-Centinela but also maintaining ownership of our downtown municipal parking structures.
It appears to be one step forward, two steps back some days and two steps forward, one step back on others. Although we were able to slash one payback to the state (to $2 million instead of $22 million), more recently the state has withheld $11 million in bond repayments, forcing us to go to court. We need to settle these items so that the state can approve our Long Range Property Management Plan and so that we can take back our projects and begin construction.
I will continue to be dogged in my efforts to ensure that Culver City owns its redevelopment projects.
Our employees are part of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS). Previous City Councils successfully negotiated with our municipal employee associations to increase employee contributions and reduce benefits for new hires. Local governments have a different sort of relationship with CalPERS. By contract, whenever CalPERS fails to meet its investment projections, the contracting agencies are required to make up the difference with increased contributions. This has been the case for several years, with CalPERS projecting a 7.5% annual return and the actual return coming in significantly below that. As a result, Culver City and other participating cities have been informed that they face substantial increases in contributions. Culver City alone is looking at a 50% increase over the next five years.
This will be a significant challenge requiring tough choices, but I pledge to seek solutions that do not unduly penalize our employees, who have helped us during these recent difficult years.
Ballona Creek is one of the treasures of Culver City. Historically, the Los Angeles River flowed where Ballona Creek now runs. All of western Los Angeles County is a watershed that drains into Ballona Creek. Along with the water come pollutants, especially during rainy periods, when oil, dirt and toxins get into the storm drain system and eventually find their way to Ballona Creek and then Santa Monica Bay. The State Water Resources Control Board wants to fix the problem of pollutants flowing into the bay by capturing or treating stormwater runoff. It is a very costly venture, estimated at $1.2 billion for the watershed region. Culver City accounts for 4% of the watershed, putting us on the hook for about $50 million, to be raised between now and 2021, with the possibility of an additional charge of $1 million to $2 million each year thereafter.
Again, there are no identifiable sources of funding available, but I vow that whatever means we find to pay for these projects will be fair to our residents and our businesses.
Grants and Public-Private Partnerships
The options available to the city to raise additional funds are limited. Within the last two years, we have raised both our sales tax and transient occupancy tax (hotel tax). We have one of the higher utility users taxes (to offset decreases made in property taxes years ago).
We need to be proactive in going after county, state and federal funding. Grants are competitive and will require the city to invest staff time or to hire consultants to complete the applications. Additionally, grantors often require what is called “maintenance of effort,” meaning that once the grant funding ends the city must be sure that it can continue to fund and operate the programs.
I believe we should also encourage public-private partnerships in which the city contributes funds but also solicits funding from private businesses, foundations and even residents. By leveraging funds from several sources, we would be able to accomplish more without placing a burden on our general fund.
My background as the former director of grants for the city of Los Angeles and my current and past work with foundations and nonprofit organizations have given me the skills to help in pursuing these funding opportunities.
Here are other issues that should be addressed:
Maintaining Neighborhood Integrity
Culver City has always been a great place to live. As we strive to bring in more development, we must also protect our neighborhoods from increased traffic and noise and parking incursions. All new developments must provide adequate parking and must be encouraged to incorporate alternative modes of transportation, such as the Expo Line light rail, DASH-like shuttles, bike sharing or even pedicabs.
We have alleviated the parking problem by simplifying parking restrictions on neighborhood streets. We are also looking at reducing hours for street sweeping (to two hours from the current four) to open up more parking. And we are working with developers and landowners to build additional parking structures or use innovative parking techniques (such as automated or stacked parking) in our commercial areas to relieve pressure on neighborhood streets.
Equally important to relieving parking concerns, I also want to ensure that we continue to trim trees, repair streets and sidewalks, and have excellent response time from police and fire.
Smart Economic Development
The easiest form of economic development is the retention and expansion of existing businesses. To that end, we need to ensure that city policies do not result in closures or relocations. We need to be aware of (and to counter when necessary) what neighboring cities are doing to lure our businesses away. We should analyze the gross receipts tax system and consider adding a business tax holiday, tax credits and fee waivers for certain types of businesses that generate high levels of sales or business taxes.
To attract new businesses, we must have a vision for the Culver City of the future and a roadmap for how to get there. City staff has provided a good start by preparing an Economic Development Plan.
Every candidate will support “smart development.” What does that really mean? To me, it means attracting development that:
· Fits into the culture and environment of Culver City and reflects our vision for the city.
· Creates jobs that pay well.
· Does not create a burden on surrounding residential neighborhoods.
· Generates a healthy amount of tax revenue.
· Provides a needed service to our residents and the surrounding communities.
· Becomes a magnet to attract similar types of businesses.
· Provides for a suitable mix of commercial, retail and residential uses.
· Increases the use of non-automobile transportation.
· Utilizes energy-efficient technologies.
I serve on the Council’s economic development subcommittee. In that role I work with staff and the Chamber of Commerce and individual businesses to improve the climate for them and to devise strategies to attract new businesses. Together we work on coming up with innovative approaches to finance infrastructure and landscaping improvements and to streamline permitting for worthwhile projects.
For Westside communities such as ours, it is almost impossible to build or maintain affordable housing without some type of financial incentive or subsidy. (That was why redevelopment was such an asset; we could provide incentives or subsidies to developers and provide rental assistance to low-income residents.)
Unfortunately, all of that has gone away, and we do not at this time have the ability to address these problems. Fortunately, we were able to build some affordable housing at Tilden Terrace and 4043 Irving. Affordable housing is also a component of our redevelopment projects, if and when we can get them back from the state. We also had some reserve redevelopment funds that we applied this year for rental assistance. That money will run out next year. We cannot afford to pay for affordable housing or rental assistance from our general fund.
I feel strongly that the state needs to provide a mechanism like redevelopment to support affordable housing projects. I will work with our state legislators to gain their support for such legislation.
Culver City has a wealth of environmental treasures: our neighborhood parks, Culver City Park, the Boneyard, the Ballona Overlook and the Ballona Creek Bike Path. As your council member, I will protect and maintain these great assets.
Culver City has tried to set a good example of environmental stewardship. We recently passed a ban on the use of plastic bans that clog up our landfills, blow into our storm drains and eventually end up in Ballona Creek or Santa Monica Bay.
We also have been a leader in the use of green technology, both in public works projects and in what we require for new development. I will continue this progress and ensure that Culver City is recognized as an environmental leader.
We sit on the Inglewood Oil Field, the largest urban oil field in the United States. As your council member, I share with my colleagues the responsibility for ensuring that we are doing everything possible to protect public health and safety. Oil drilling by its very nature is dangerous to workers, surrounding residents and our environment. The use of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” across the nation has raised numerous concerns regarding safety and appropriateness. This council called upon Gov. Jerry Brown to ban fracking throughout the state until it can be proven safe. We have supported and will continue to support legislation to provide more oversight into fracking operations and the chemicals that are used in the process.
I regularly attend the meetings of the Community Advisory Panel (CAP) for the Community Standards District of the Inglewood Oil Field, and I will stay vigilant to ensure that the health and safety of our residents are protected.
Arts and Culture
Harry Culver founded our city as a center for a new entertainment medium – motion pictures –and our motto, “Heart of Screenland,” reflects the importance the arts have played in Culver City.
We are blessed with enormous talent among our residents and a wide variety of cultural activities. Whether it be museums such as the Culver City Historical Society Museum, the Mayme Clayton Library and Museum (the largest private collection of African-American artifacts), the Wende Museum’s Cold War artifacts (including the largest portion of the Berlin Wall outside of Germany) or the Sony Pictures Entertainment Museum, we are developing a museum district around Veterans Memorial Auditorium. The auditorium itself is a showcase for performance, with appearances by the Culver City Symphony Orchestra, the Culver City Chamber Orchestra and various dance and theater companies. Downtown we have the Actors’ Gang, the Kirk Douglas Theater and soon, we hope, the Jazz Bakery for live entertainment.
On the east end of town we have our Arts District, which, along with the Helms Bakery complex and new restaurants, has become a destination and brought notice to Culver City. The buildings in the Hayden Tract, designed by Eric Owen Moss and developed by Frederick Smith, are visually arresting works of art in their own right.
Each year, the city hosts the Summer Concert Series, which provides free entertainment from world class performers in the City Hall Courtyard (thanks to Gary Mandell of Boulevard Music and other sponsors – another example of a great public-private partnership).
This past year, Culver City provided a “hub” for CicLAvia along Venice Boulevard. More than 15,000 bicyclists visited our hub, making the day the busiest of the year for all of our downtown restaurants and exposing Culver City to thousands of visitors. Funds for the hub came from Sony Pictures Entertainment, the Downtown Business District and dozens of Culver City residents – another public-private partnership.
Similarly, the annual Car Show, hosted by the Exchange Club, brings thousands of auto aficionados to downtown Culver City, and the annual Fiesta La Ballona at Veterans Memorial Park attracts thousands of non-residents.
The school district is a partner in our cultural activities. Through the Academy for Visual and Performing Arts at the high school, the public has access to first-rate musical and theatrical productions.
Because of the loss of redevelopment, the city was forced to reduce Cultural Affairs staffing. As a result, we have had a hard time maintaining our arts and cultural programming. This is one area where I believe public-private partnerships and the involvement of our residents can help to overcome our financial shortfalls. Working with our Cultural Affairs Foundation and Cultural Affairs Commission and staff, I will continue to seek out other funding opportunities so that we do not lose a quality that makes Culver City special.
Culver City’s Centennial
On September 20 (my birthday), 2017, Culver City will mark its 100th anniversary of incorporation. This will be a big event. We need to start planning now.
Again because of our finances, this is not something the city will be able to cover on its own, nor should it. My idea is to create a separate nonprofit Culver City Centennial Celebration Committee to raise money for and put on a yearlong centennial celebration involving all of our residents and businesses. The committee would work under guidelines from the City Council and staff but would rely on the creativity, energy and contributions of residents to sponsor events and activities.
The centennial celebration will be a unique opportunity to unify our community around a common goal of promoting Culver City as a great place to live and work . . . and have fun.
Those are just some of the issues I see on the horizon. I would like to hear from you about what you feel is important. Please make comments below. Thank you in advance for sharing your thoughts.