After talk of recession and economic doom and gloom, it was a pleasure to hear about the State of the City of Santa Monica in robust terms. The Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce hosted a luncheon, which based on turnout proved to be a huge success. This is a very involved and interested business community, which is one reason for its great success. This was also the first major event hosted by the new Chamber President/CEO Laurel Rosen.
From the Convention and Visitors Bureau, Misti Kerns reported on record high (83 percent) occupancy rates at our hotels, even while bemoaning sleepless nights worrying about the future composition of our visitors. Gotta love her for caring so much. Meanwhile, Bayside Director Kathleen Rawson painted a rosy picture of the goings-on downtown with special note being made about the huge turnout at the skating rink, a decidedly family-affair destination. The worst economic news I heard came from City Manager Lamont Ewell when he declared city revenues were skewing flat. That sounded better than down. For some reason auto sales have tempered off (not enough advertising, of course!) along with retail sales.
Tourism and the Promenade area are two major economic juggernauts, which receive substantial city support. Hearing of their success is common, especially while being managed by these two very capable women. More development is planned for downtown, including the remaking of Santa Monica Place, a new bridge going to the Pier, the bluffs stabilization project, and the California Incline rehab. Also in the works is an enhancement for the streets surrounding the Promenade, including a controversial measure that includes reducing ficus trees in the district.
Members of the panel also included Chamber President Tom Larmore and Master of Ceremonies Nat Trives.
I did want to hear about other aspects of the city’s business, such as a report from the other Business Improvement Districts (BID). Gary Gordon, who is in charge of the Main Street Merchants Association and BID, did lament the fact his organization was short of funds. I may have missed the Pico Improvement Organization head, but that is certainly an area of town that can use an economic boost. Montana Avenue, the other main BID in town, seems to be prospering. Perhaps later forums will expand the reporting and bring businesspeople onto the panel. In particular, it would be good to hear about the auto industry, entertainment-Internet, commercial realty, residential realty, dining, and a whole variety of businesses. There is only so much you can do at a luncheon, yet this event gave a good review of major highlights.
Mayor Herb Katz seems to be relishing his new job, and reported to me he was aghast at a new measure being contemplated in town that would cap the amount of new development (75,000 sq. feet) allowed in any given year. Sounded like a command economy, which Katz promises to oppose. More on this as information becomes available.
There was talk of how the statewide budget crisis will affect Santa Monica and other cities that are normally hit hard when the state fails to fulfill its main obligations. Other news that came available was hearing of the loss of Dimensional Funding, which has apparently moved their HQ to Texas, and the move of First Federal out of the downtown core. Both were reported to move as a result of escalating rental rates. Tell that to small business people who can ill afford the rent, much less the ability to acquire property, which is often the basis of stability and wealth for small business owners.
The major guest speaker was California’s U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein. It was an honor that she attended and addressed this local business crowd, but I did find it odd that her major theme was on global warming and not on the economy, which is beginning to worry people. Also noted by a civic leader was the fact that during Feinstein’s speech and the concern of others regarding the state budget and the possible shortfall of money, the issue of the cost of the war in Iraq was never brought up. The cost of the war is now reported to be over One Trillion Dollars and is costing $8-10 billion a month to maintain. Ouch, that would buy a lot of teachers, clean power plants, and health care.
Feinstein spoke briefly of the Veterans property and how she will be speaking with Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky to determine its best possible use. Feinstein, however, never mentioned Santa Monica City Councilman Bobby Shriver, who was in the audience, and who has done a yeoman’s job of making it possible to convert three buildings to vet housing. Homeless issues have consistently ranked as a major priority for Santa Monica residents, and a major portion of our homeless population are veterans. Finding homes for them would go a long way into helping this problem. Feinstein made a major legislative blunder when she wrote into a bill a clause that will effectively shut down the ability to convert these properties. The clause, called “enhanced use,” would have allowed financing and rapid movement on the vet housing plan. Her intent may have been pure as she was intending to stop commercial development, but the clause may prohibit conversion to housing in the same fashion and it may take years to get this resolved. Feinstein can amend her bill with a simple statement allowing consideration of vet housing. When I spoke with her regarding this, she seemed keenly interested in getting the information and seemed genuinely interested in doing the right thing and getting the facts. Let’s hope she receives the proper education on this matter and does the right thing. Too much work has already been put into this excellent endeavor to see it stymied by a few words attached to a bill.
Voters in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District are once again being asked to tax themselves in order to provide adequate funding for the district. Proposition R will be in front of local voters in Santa Monica and Malibu this February 5 and will put in place a parcel tax that does not require renewal. It means voters will be permanently assessing themselves this extra money designed to support their school district. In many ways it is a bargain when considering the option is private school at $25,000 a year. The several hundred dollars a year assessed per parcel is a nominal fee when considering Proposition 13 stripped local districts of the ability to fund education properly. Though the voters in Santa Monica are primarily single with no children, they still see the value in an educated society and have consistently voted in support of parcel taxes to help subsidize our schools. This money is on top of the funding the City of Santa Monica provides yearly. There are some who say it is not their burden to fund the schools, that the state is responsible, and they are satisfied with that. They say education starts at home, and the District has sufficient resources to provide a basic education. Anything else is up to the individual family. Some people may be pinched by the additional taxes.
We at the Mirror are clearly and unequivocally in support of Proposition R. Any objection to the proposition pales in comparison to the good it will do for the schoolkids in our District. Adequate funding is essential to retaining good teachers, providing fully stocked classrooms, having outstanding facilities, and ensuring that programs often set for the chopping block are not axed in this district. Vote Yes on Proposition R.
The issue becomes even more pronounced when considering the statewide budget crisis. Once again, Governor Schwarzenegger claims the problem is declining revenues rather than hard political choices regarding balancing our statewide budget. So instead of renewing the vehicle tax he so notably cut, he would choose to lessen education funding and close state parks. Schwarzenegger has spent his credit cards (bond funding) so the gimmicks are gone. For once it would be good to hear the governor talk about the need to raise additional revenue in order to balance our budget in lean years. Is it sacrosanct to consider raising the sales tax? Or how about the $4.5 billion he saved by cutting the vehicle registration fees? Perhaps when we can afford it we don’t pay those fees, but maybe now we need those fees again. Has he thought about early release for drug offenders instead of paying $30,000 a year to keep them in jail and keep our prison guard unions happy? In the end there are ways to save money and there is money that has to be spent. Education and health care fall into the latter category.