For a small city with a population of 34,000 people, the list is pretty extraordinary: $75 million in public bonds for the stalled Movietown project, tens of millions of dollars for the West Hollywood Park renovation with a new library and parking garage, tens of millions of dollars for a proposed redesign of Plummer Park, $16 million for an automated parking garage.
Though the dollar figures are often given with Weho's hallmark vagueness, the total cost of those four projects appears to be somewhere around $194 million. That's about $5,700 in spending for every resident of the city, for just four projects. (Though the California Municipal Finance Authority says the city will have no liability for the Movietown bonds, which would lower that figure to $3,500 per resident.)
As some residents of West Hollywood have expressed concerns about the city's chosen fiscal course, others have rejected the criticism as pointless naysaying. In a posted at the Weho Patch this week, for example, Scott Ferguson blasted what he called the dissatisfied minority that complains about city government.
"WeHo residents from my experience are by and large very happy overall with the management of this city," he wrote. "From my discussions with neighbors (I am a dog walker, that leads to a lot of chat), most people are generally satisfied with the way our government operates. And for good reason - it's a great place to live."
But the point is not that West Hollywood is a great place to live today. The point is where this explosion of spending will leave our small city in ten years.
In the last decade, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania experienced a government-led renaissance that dramatically transformed a crumbling city under the leadership of its longtime mayor, Stephen Reed.
As a recent news story put it, "Harrisburg is a city transformed. Upscale hotels, Class A office buildings, bars and restaurants fill the streets near the Capitol building. The old Holiday Inn, which was on the cusp of being transformed into a complex with a strip club on the bottom two floors and subsidized housing above, is now a Crowne Plaza, one of the city’s two convention hotels. Lawyers and lobbyists occupy the historic federalist townhouses that look out over the Susquehanna River. Bicycle-riding hipsters and state employees walking to work share the narrow sidewalks of the historic district. The renaissance is Reed’s legacy."
That recent news story, by the way, is a long article on Harrisburg's efforts to overcome its crushing descent into insolvency. The city has been transformed, and the city government is hopelessly broke. Harrisburg has sought bankruptcy protection, and is doing so again after a judge tossed out their first effort.
The cause of Harrisburg's fiscal disaster: infrastructure spending that didn't work as planned. The article I've linked in the paragraph above tells the story pretty well.
In the years leading up to Harrisburg's massive fiscal disaster, residents saw their city improving. They liked where they lived. If you had talked to people there as you walked your dog, they would have said that most people were generally satisfied with the way their government operated. They were also on the precipice of a nightmare.
As California faces a single-year deficit of $16 billion, our local governments face serious near-term fiscal challenges. Wild spending will become untenable a lot faster than it would in ordinary times. And the costs of insolvency are brutal: Vallejo, a bankrupt city of 135,000 people, has cut its fire department in half, running four fire stations instead of the eight it had before it went broke. That's a good way to get people killed.
Local government is extraordinarily vital to our quality of life. You can see the importance of good local governance just by driving across the border from West Hollywood onto a street maintained by the City of Los Angeles. My favorite personal example is to drive east on Waring Avenue from La Cienega -- take a rope in case you fall down the potholes and need to climb back out.
West Hollywood today is a beautiful city, and I'm glad to live here. But that statement says more about the choices that our city government made ten years ago than it says about the choices it's making today.
Our conversation now is about the future.