Ron Kaye: Trouble even in paradise

The bumpy roads and broken sidewalks and overgrown trees end when you leave the city limits of Los Angeles and enter Burbank or Glendale — there should be signs saying, "Welcome to Paradise."

In contrast to the warring factions — business, civic, neighborhood groups — fighting over crumbs from the table of power in L.A., people along Olive Avenue in Burbank and Brand Boulevard in Glendale seem content as I chat them up. Most are unaware City Council elections are fast approaching — Burbank's first round is in February and Glendale's is in April — and those who do know seem little concerned about who wins.

It isn't apathy; people are happy with the way things are. After all, 94% in Burbank are satisfied with city services, according to a recent poll, and 90% in Glendale based on the last time the city asked.

Having fought for cityhood for the San Fernando Valley, and having worked hard to help make Los Angeles the great city it can be, I relish the opportunity explore smaller neighboring cities that seem to be thriving while L.A. is dying.

My first stops in my exploration are the offices of the people in charge, offices that are not guarded by armed cops or metal detectors, suggesting they don't regard the public as dangerous enemies as in L.A.

Burbank City Manager Mike Flad talks about growing up in the city and moving up through the ranks during his more than 20 years on the city payroll. He talks about civic pride in a city "where so many were born and raised and still live here" and how they respond generously "to meet the needs."

Yet, few residents show up for council meetings, the blogs about city issues are sporadic, and civic engagement beyond the occasional neighborhood controversy seems low.


"Kumbaya, that's the attitude of a lot of people," Flad suggests. "We can do better."

Burbank, unlike L.A., has little debt, using redevelopment revenue to build parks and recreation programs, upgrade the infrastructure, revive the business district and attract the Walt Disney Co. and other entertainment companies.

The city spends nearly $70 million a year from redevelopment funds — equal to nearly half the General Fund budget — and regards the money as vital to the city's health, putting Burbank, like many cities, at odds with Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal to eliminate all such agencies as a critical part of restoring California to fiscal health.

Burbank faces a big — and growing problem — with an $8.8-million deficit next fiscal year, nearly all due to soaring costs of public employee pensions and health benefits that city officials unwisely decided to increase sharply less than a decade ago.

Flad is worried but not desperate. Maybe the unions will cooperate; maybe the economy will pick up in a year or two. Then again, maybe not.

There are long-standing problems in the Police Department regarding accusations of racial and gender discrimination, as well as traffic congestion that will get worse if the NBC Universal projects go through at Universal City. Unemployment is below the national and state averages, and a third less than L.A., but revenue is down and businesses are struggling.

At the modern complex of concrete buildings at Glendale City Hall, I stumble into the city clerk's office looking for the city manager's office. A clerk gives me directions, making sure to hand me a stamped voucher so I get free parking.

What, am I in Mayberry?

Well, no. This is a city twice the size of Burbank with high unemployment, a high welfare rate, and complex demographics representing dramatic changes in the last two decades.

It is also a retail giant with the addition of the Americana at Brand across from the Glendale Galleria — both subsidized by community redevelopment money.

City Manager Jim Starbird is on vacation, so I meet with his No. 2, Yasmin Beers, who grew up in Glendale, has worked for the city for 23 years, and feels "lucky to be a public servant."

She has just come from a meeting in which Glendale, following the lead of L.A., locked up its redevelopment money in defiance of the governor's budget balancing plan.

Like Flad, she says these vast sums are vital to provide affordable housing, infrastructure improvements and investment to create jobs and businesses that generate tax revenue.

Glendale's biggest problems are traffic and lack of affordable housing, with 5,000 people on a waiting list. Like every city, there are also state regulations requiring drastic steps to reach clean-energy goals and long-term water shortage issues.

City officials have taken a long series of steps to reduce costs, but a $13-million budget deficit looms, so more cuts are coming, more staff shrinkage, more consolidation.

"Quality-of-life issues are our focus," Beers said, "jobs, arts, culture, recreation. Public participation is paramount as we move forward."

She is talking to my core belief. With shrinking budgets and structural economic changes occurring, we need a new scale to measure the quality of our lives — even in paradise — and that requires a higher level of civic engagement from service clubs, neighborhood groups and those who take it all for granted.

The future of our cities will increasingly depend on the participation of the people who have the most to gain or lose: the residents.

RON KAYE can be reached at Share your stories and concerns with him.

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