Mayor Garcetti on furloughs, balancing budget, federal help amid COVID-19

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The L.A. Live courtyard remains empty as stay-at-home orders have been in effect for a month. Photo by Ted Soqui for KCRW.

Many LA businesses have been shut down for a month, and on Sunday, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti said thousands of city employees will have to be furloughed. The day after delivering his State of the City address, he talks to us about LA’s economic troubles, stay-at-home protests in other California cities, and what we need from the federal government during this pandemic. 

KCRW: Residents in San Diego, Huntington Beach, San Clemente have recently protested stay-at-home orders. If these demonstrations come to LA, how do you plan to respond?

Garcetti: “Everybody, of course, has their First Amendment rights. And you always have to listen, even if it's from people who you may disagree with. … But I'm taking, you know, the overall majority of my guidance from public health professionals, from medical doctors, from also everyday citizens. And [I’m] doing what we need to do to save lives and restart the economy. 

… We want to save lives and take baby steps and then bigger steps towards some opening in the coming weeks.” 

Do you have a plan for more testing and contact tracing?

“I’ve called for something called the CARES Corps. Nationally I've talked to a lot of senators who are thinking on the same lines, like Chris Coons from Delaware, and Amy Klobuchar [Minnesota], and our own Kamala Harris — as well as folks in the White House. 

… It's really a bipartisan proposal that myself and the mayor of Oklahoma City (David Holt) put out with Dr. [Mark] McClellan, who was one of the people saying what we needed to do … to get our society back open. 

We know that there will be probably 300,000 people nationwide we need to just do the contact tracing and the communication. This tracking and this tracing is everything. And so I think for folks that are worried, and folks that are anxious, or even those who are protesting, we hope that folks won't do that close by to each other. When you exercise those First Amendment rights, please do it in a way that won't spread COVID-19. We're going to have to make sure that that's in place for our county health departments across this country. And I just met with [LA County Department of Public Health Director] Dr. [Barbara] Ferrer, offered to help out. 

Maybe we can put some people back to work who are unemployed. As Boston is doing with Partners in Health: training unemployed Bostonians to do some of that contact tracing and giving them a salary while helping us get the rest of the economy going.”

If LA trains and pays people to do contract tracing, would the city for that? On Sunday, you announced you’re furloughing city employees.

“We did announce that. But this would have to come from the federal government. And what I also said in my State of the City address is the federal government needs to stand up just as we have in extraordinary moments. 

Think about the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. Think about the Peace Corps when President Kennedy wanted to win the Cold War. Or the Teacher Corps, which my grandmother was a part of when President Johnson said, ‘Let's get teachers into some of the poorest schools in America, in our then inner cities. 

It is time for us to think about something bigger than ourselves, and to allow Americans to come back into solving this together. And I think that we're stretched so thin and making so many cuts across city and county governments. The federal government needs to make sure that they are helping bail out local governments just as they have banks and big corporations.” 

How willing do you think President Trump would be to the idea of employing 300,000 people to do contact tracing? He’s encouraging stay-at-home protests. He seems to be more interested in people quickly getting back to work.

“We've got all sorts of contradictory information coming out of Washington, D.C. in this administration. I try to look at … where we've had some good actions and cooperation. … The rhetoric can be dangerous. Don't get me wrong, it can incite people. I think that anybody who does these things bears responsibility for the spread of the disease and people dying. 

But at the same time, I look at those opportunities. And I was pleased to see even the White House talk about a COVID Corps. 

… We have Democrats, Republicans … people in the White House … people in Congress and a lot of local officials who are rallying behind the idea of this. And Governor Newsom, too, is looking at that kind of volunteerism model and/or potentially paid model to help do this in California. 

So there's no question we need this. This is not some kind of fancy idea. This is the basics of getting the economy going alongside with testing. But it's really that tracking and tracing — even more than serology tests — that will help us be able to have a more functioning economy for more people sooner.”

Furloughs — you're asking city workers to take what amounts to a 10% pay cut over the next fiscal year. Bob Schoonover, president of Service Employees International Union Local 721, reacted to that with dismay, saying these people are doing essential work. “We cannot call these men and women heroes and then turn around and attempt to balance the budget on their backs,” Schoonover said. What's your response to that? 

“We have great cooperation with our city employees. … Everybody knows everybody is hurting. Just like I said households are doing, we have to do the same thing here with our city family. 

… [I’m] donating my entire net salary this month. As long as this continues going on, I'll continue to look at doing that. 

That's something that we all had to do in 2008. And it's something that we have to do simply to balance this budget. We cannot have firefighters not responding to 9-1-1 calls and police officers not there. But for our civilian employees who aren't the people picking up the trash or doing a couple really critical things, we all have to tighten our belts. 

I do hope we can get rid of some of those furloughs and put more people back to work — if the federal government answers its responsibility to make sure that local and state government is thought of. … We're the ones who have our frontline workers in homeless shelters, answering 9-1-1 calls in hospitals. I mean, that should be something that should be in the next round of whatever CARES Act comes forward. 

And my understanding was it was on the table yesterday. Republicans in the Senate took it off. They didn't dismiss it for the next round. But unfortunately, we all want to help small businesses out. But they held that hostage and it got kicked out. 

But this isn't just a problem for Los Angeles. I talked to mayors around the world, in Vancouver. I talked to the mayor where they've already laid off employees, other places where they've seen their revenues cut in half. … 

This is really, really serious stuff. And if these people — who are not just government workers, but residents in communities across America — don't have the ability to spend locally, that affects Main Street, that affects city services. 

So I'm optimistic that we can continue pushing, and that will be in the next round of our national legislation. But if we don't have it, I have to balance the budget, and I have to make sure that we continue to have those city services.”

How bad is the economic picture in LA right now? You said yesterday that cherished programs will lose funding. Which cherished programs are you thinking about? 

“There's no question that this is worse than 2008, which was the worst we ever had. We're going to see unemployment probably around the 20% range. We don't know how long that will last, but it could be short, medium or long term. 

… The airport, for instance, they have their own budget, but that's 95% down in terms of flights. We see our hotel rooms cut by about the same amount, over 90%. 

We've seen our business tax stay steady. We've seen our utility users tax be OK. But our hotel tax, our sales tax, and other things are way down. 

So we'll have a sound budget. I'm pleased that a couple days ago, the bond rating companies kept us at the same bond rating, and said that we are stable. And that's a reflection of the reserve fund we've built for seven years in a row. 

But yes, all sorts of programs. I said we’ll not probably clean up graffiti as quickly as possible, won't be able to trim as many trees. 

I mean, we went through this in 2008. I think we're in a much better position in terms of a reserve fund, but a much worse position in terms of what the economy is. 

And a lot of this year's budget will be snapshots every few weeks, as opposed to one set budget that today we say we know for sure this is what we'll be like for the next 12 months. A lot of that depends on how well we come out of this, and also what sort of help we get from the federal government.”

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski