Her kind of town
When Bryant Monroe met Long Beach, Calif., Mayor Beverly O’Neill for the first time in 1995, circumstances could not have been worse. As a project manager for the Department of Defense Office of Economic Adjustment, Monroe had spent the previous four years helping the city through the process of closing the Navy base that had played a central role in its economy for decades. Now, he and some colleagues were meeting with the newly elected mayor to discuss the status of the project.
Ironically, on the same day, a new list of military closures was issued, which included the last Navy facility left in Long Beach. “Here we were meeting with the mayor, and the bad news is out,” Monroe says. “Of course, the mayor was very upset by the news, but she was truly an optimist and a leader. She said, ‘This is the wrong choice. This shouldn’t close, but we have to move ahead.’ From then on, she was out front as the community leader, focusing the community’s energy on what it had to do to come to grips with that closure decision.”
Since her election a decade ago, Beverly O’Neill has led Long Beach through the transformation from a Navy town to a tourist destination and hub for international trade. As Long Beach’s population has grown 13.4 percent since 1990, the mayor has worked to attract businesses to provide housing and jobs. And because Long Beach is the home to one of the busiest ports in the world, the mayor has the added responsibility of protecting the city against possible terrorist threats from the container ships that shuttle goods from overseas daily. Just as the economy has left city budgets ravaged across the country, Long Beach and its mayor also have struggled to make ends meet.
Despite those challenges, O’Neill and the city have completely redeveloped the naval property and fostered a downtown revitalization that has attracted new businesses, jobs and housing. The mayor was appointed to a national task force to investigate first responders’ federal homeland security funding and led an effort to block the state legislature from taking local revenues to balance its budget. Most recently, O’Neill called for a strategic plan to resolve the significant budget crisis facing the city. O’Neill’s efforts to tackle problems at the local, state and national levels make her the 2004 American City & County Municipal Leader of the Year.
Charting a new course
When O’Neill was elected mayor in 1994, the city was still reeling from the Navy’s decision to close three of its four facilities in Long Beach. “I thought people weren’t as proud of the city as I thought they should be, and I thought by running for mayor maybe I could instill some sense of pride in this wonderful place,” O’Neill says.
Until 1991, Long Beach was home to 38 naval vessels and 17,000 navy personnel. The estimated economic impact from the loss of the Navy installation alone would total $1.8 billion annually. “We had been a Navy town for over 60 years,” O’Neill says. “It was a really bitter pill to realize you’re going to lose your image and also your tax base. We had to take a new direction for the city.”
O’Neill understood that the city’s extraordinary transformation would need extraordinary support. In September 1995, she traveled with other city leaders to Washington, D.C., to ask President Bill Clinton for help. “I don’t know of many communities that were able to bring an entourage into the White House and make a formal presentation to the president on the city’s economic recovery strategy,” says Gerald Miller, city manager. “[Clinton] came to Long Beach almost a year later to visit with the mayor and to check on the progress that had been made. That was her force of personality, her leadership.”
Long Beach embarked on a public planning process to create ways in which the military land could be used for economic development. “Redevelopment proceeded very slowly, and we didn’t begin to pick up steam until 1994 to 1995,” Miller says. “The mayor really helped elevate the entire discussion and bring that plan to a higher level of interest with the decision makers in the Navy and the Department of Defense.”
After four years, O’Neill faced reelection and won handily with 80 percent of the vote. By then, redevelopment on former Navy properties had begun. A 4,000-student high school and a $20 million federal Job Corps center opened on naval housing property by 1998. The 70-acre naval hospital was combined with 30 adjacent acres to build a 100-acre shopping center. The remaining naval housing property was converted to transitional housing for homeless veterans and a $30 million technology research facility for California State University. The Port of Long Beach acquired the 500-acre naval shipyard to use as a container terminal, which opened in August 2002.
By the end of O’Neill’s second term, the redevelopment of the Navy properties was nearly complete, and the community mood began to change. “When you have a crisis in your own life — if somebody dies or you lose your job or get a divorce — you really have to sit back and look at yourself,” O’Neill says. “That’s kind of the way I felt when the Navy left, but it made us look at ourselves. It made us realize what we were as a community, and we weren’t going to just lay down and get rolled over.”
The Navy property developments sparked additional revitalization projects downtown, including a public harbor with a marina and a 157,000-square-foot aquarium to generate tourism. In 2003, a $75 million mixed-use development, called CityPlace, with nearly 450,000 square feet of retail space and 347 residential units, opened in the heart of the city. The eight-square-block property, formerly an enclosed mall, was redeveloped by a private company with $17.4 million in aid from the city and the Long Beach Redevelopment Agency. As a result, streets reopened to create an open shopping district with ground-floor retail and upper-floor housing. CityPlace is expected to generate $1.2 million in annual sales tax revenue and $184,000 in annual property tax revenue.
Not far from CityPlace, a $130 million retail and entertainment complex opened on the downtown waterfront in late 2003. There are now more than 3,000 new apartments and condominiums either under construction or recently completed downtown.
Making ends meet
Although Long Beach mayors are limited to two four-year terms, according to the city charter, they may be elected to additional terms as write-in candidates. O’Neill was the first mayor of Long Beach to be elected to a third term as a write-in candidate in 2002. “The reason that I ran for mayor the third time was not because I had to stay in office as much as I needed to finish what we had started in the late ‘90s,” she says.
Following the election, a new challenge landed on her desk: a badly battered 2003 budget. The city manager’s budget reflected the dismal economy and projected that the Long Beach general fund was going to fall short of expenditures by $46 million. He proposed covering the shortfall with a one-time transfer from other funds, but O’Neill could see a larger problem looming. “As we projected forward, we were going to fall further and further out of balance,” says Suzanne Mason, deputy city manager for finance. “Over the next three years, we were facing serious problems.”
The projected three-year shortfall, which grew from $90 million in 2003 to $102 million in 2004, was an accumulation of several issues, including reduced tax revenues, a utility user tax reduction, increased health care costs for employees and increasing workers’ compensation costs. Long Beach also stopped contributing to the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) in 1998. Four years later, CalPERS warned the city it would need to resume contributing $40 million to the system in 2005 as a result of declining stock market returns.
The mayor called for a long-term plan to bring expenditures in line with expected revenues. “At the time, I said, ‘We cannot continue to have this increasing gap between revenue and expenditures. The next big chunk of money I see that would be available if this gap continues to grow is the emergency reserve, and we’re never going to touch that,’” O’Neill says.
Rather than relying on department heads to reduce spending, the mayor proposed an effort that asked the entire community how the city could reduce its costs. The city surveyed residents and generated more than 13,000 suggestions, held forums with business leaders and community groups, and solicited recommendations from all city employees, including janitors and bus drivers, to identify where costs could be cut. “I think for the first time in that fall of 2002, we said, ‘This is a problem that we all share together,’” Mason says. “It was really Mayor O’Neill who said we need to change this, and we need to develop a strategy, and we need to involve all stakeholders. It was a catalyst for tremendous change and action.”
Within three months, the Three-Year Financial Strategic Plan was completed. It called for reducing the deficit by $41 million in 2004 and searching for additional reductions in subsequent years. The recently approved budget for 2005 reduces an additional $33 million of the deficit, which leaves an estimated $28 million in reductions to go. To meet those goals, Long Beach evaluated all services and operations to find ways to save money and generate revenue. It cut management and support staff, increased employee costs for benefits, increased fees, reduced financial support for art programs, and reduced library hours and funding for materials.
The mayor’s program to reduce the budget shortfalls won the 2003 League of California Cities Helen Putnam Award in excellence in enhancing public trust, ethics and community involvement. It also inspired the city to restructure its workers’ compensation management and code enforcement and to study fire services and parking management. A performance-based budget currently is under development that will measure results of all city programs to determine future funding levels.
To complement Long Beach’s financial plans, O’Neill worked at the state and national level to protect local government revenues and to secure homeland security funding for first responders. As the president of the League of California Cities in 2001, O’Neill led discussions about the state’s unwieldy authority to take money from local governments to balance its budget. The league and mayors of the 10 largest cities in California negotiated with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for Proposition 1A, which appears on the ballot this month. The law would allow the state to borrow money from the cities only twice in 10 years, and it would have to repay the loan before borrowing again.
As the vice president for the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Conference of Mayors this year, O’Neill was appointed to the Homeland Security Funding Task Force to evaluate the pipeline of first responder funding. Because the Port of Long Beach is the main entry point for more than 35 percent of the goods that enter the country, funding to protect that asset was critical to the mayor. “Whenever there is a different level of threat, you have overtime, [and cities have been] slowly using money from their other budgets in order to cover it,” O’Neill says. “The procedures on disbursement and reimbursement need to be looked at.”
Leading the way
Before O’Neill became mayor, she had a 31-year career as an educator in the city’s schools. Although O’Neill’s political abilities were untested when she took office in 1994, her remarkably long tenure is a testament to her natural leadership abilities. “The reputation the mayor had before she came to Long Beach was not only as a supreme leader and educator at the community college, but she had been very involved in statewide and national educational organizations and had risen to leadership positions in those organizations,” Miller says. “She seems to find a path that leads to leadership responsibility and, from our perspective in the city, does a great job with the leadership assignments that she takes on.”
As a lifelong resident of Long Beach, the opportunity to give back to the community and contribute to the future of her hometown was too great to turn down. “I really love this city,” O’Neill says. “It gave me so much assistance as I was growing up, and I just felt that I wanted that to continue.”
For the rest of her term, the mayor has many more challenges to address, including transportation and youth violence. As with previous challenges, she is expected to pull together the community to find creative solutions. “I want us to be economically self sufficient,” O’Neill says. “I would like us to know that we have a strong future because of what’s been invested and what we can see as the direction for our city. I think we’re headed in that direction. I hope the people feel proud of what’s happened to their city.”