In a normal time, the annual State of the City address is part brag sheet, part game plan for the upcoming year. Required by the City Charter to be delivered by the mayor of Los Angeles each April, it is usually a celebratory affair, and often takes place in a symbolic location. One held, for example, in the auditorium of the LAPD headquarters indicates that public safety will be a priority in the next fiscal year (which starts July 1).
The State of the City, which precedes the release of the mayor’s proposed budget, usually attracts hundreds of people, including a variety of elected officials, as well as nearly every city department head and many senior staffers. A collection of business leaders is often in the audience. So too is a gaggle of media members.
Like everything in L.A. these days, the State of the City that Mayor Eric Garcetti delivered Sunday evening was anything but usual. Instead of having hundreds of people in the room with him, Angelenos practicing social distancing could only watch on TV or a Facebook livestream. The speech that often runs about an hour, in part from frequent applause points, had not a single clap-caused interruption—it came in a tidy and direct 28 minutes.
Speaking in the City Council chambers, Garcetti offered two primary takeaways: 1. Los Angeles is in a world of hurt financially, and 2. the federal government needs to step up with an economic rescue package for cities.
He also had a third point: Los Angeles is ready to lead in a national recovery.
Instead of hopscotching from point to point as usually occurs in a State of the City, this address was built entirely around the current difficulties and the future challenges posed by the battle against COVID-19, which with more than 40,000 deaths has killed more people in the United States than in any country.
Garcetti made no effort to sugarcoat or downplay the severity of the situation. Although he nodded to local success in flattening the curve through a stay-at-home order, he pointed to the nearly 3,400 people in L.A. County who have been hospitalized, and the 600 who have died.
“I’ve never before hesitated to assure you that our city is strong. But I won’t say those words tonight,” Garcetti said near the end of the address. “Our city is under attack. Our daily life is unrecognizable. We are bowed and we are worn down. We are grieving our dead. But we are not broken, nor will we ever be.”
Garcetti was the president of the City Council during the Great Recession, and witnessed up close the furloughs and staff reductions in city government that were required to balance the budget.
“This is bigger and it will hurt more. Our city revenues have plummeted. Hotel reservations have collapsed,” he said, and soon added, “From a fiscal perspective, this is the worst it’s ever been.”
The pain will be immediate and wide-reaching—Garcetti said that a city hiring freeze instituted when the pandemic began will continue for the foreseeable future. Further, he said that in the coming year, all civilian employees will have to take 26 furlough days, which marks the equivalent of a 10 percent salary cut. Thousands of people will see their pay decrease.
More details of cutbacks will likely come when the budget is delivered.
Garcetti was direct in demanding help from the federal government, and referenced Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal program introduced as the country sought to rebound from the depths of the Great Depression. The mayor said the resources are available, and should be directed at municipalities. If he didn’t mention President Trump and Congressional leaders by name, it was clear who he hoped was listening.
“Don’t bail out banks but leave cities with cuts and collapse,” he said. “If you want to reopen America, America’s cities are where this nation begins.”
He said a comeback won’t be in the form of flipping a switch that changes everything instantly, but rather will be a piecemeal process in which lights come on in one room at a time.
Garcetti noted that a recovery will be a prolonged process, and warned that there could be a second wave of cases later in the year. He cited a component mentioned in one of his daily coronavirus briefings last week, that getting back to where the city was before will require clearing multiple hurdles, including more testing and ensuring there is sufficient hospital capacity. He said a comeback won’t be in the form of flipping a switch that changes everything instantly, but rather will be a piecemeal process in which lights come on in one room at a time. He said it will be months before people gather in large groups again.
The speech was replete with grim moments, but Garcetti also sought to celebrate the city’s spirit and status as a national leader. He mentioned the swift action Los Angeles took in issuing the Safer at Home mandate, and said L.A. was ahead of the curve in other sectors, from requiring face coverings to protecting undocumented individuals.
“When Los Angeles takes action, we inspire the nation and we inspire the world,” he said. “And God knows, we could all use a little inspiration right now.”