Santa Monica Joins Regional Effort to Tackle Growth
By Oliver Lukacs
March 18 -- Shown a troubling vision of Southern California's future, where overpopulation leads to a general social meltdown, Santa Monica's Environmental Taskforce decided Monday to join the "largest regional growth visioning project in the country."
Projecting that six million people -- two Chicago's worth -- will be added by 2030 to the existing 17 million currently living in the six-county Southland, the Southern California Association of Governments is spearheading a regional sustainability campaign to battle what is being described as an already worsening social crisis.
The state's public school system is under-funded and overcrowded, turning out uneducated low-wage workers who can't afford to buy a home or pay rent and who live on the verge of poverty in crowded, grid-locked cities, said Katherine Perez, coordinator of the SCAG Growth Visioning Committee project. And it's only going to get worse, Perez warned.
"Pressure on the system is already immense," said Perez of the nation's largest and most populous metropolitan planning region, "and we're going to be adding 6 million people on it."
In her bid to enlist the support of the Environmental Taskforce, Perez gave a multimedia presentation forecasting population and employment trends. She also outlined the problems faced by the economy and the education system in a region that comprises Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, Ventura and Imperial counties.
Half of the high school students leave school without a diploma, Perez said, and 50 percent of a Californian's average income, "which (is) dropping overall," goes towards rent. In addition, the population of people under age 20 is booming and the number of baby boomers entering retirement is "coming soon."
Perez said the exhausted public education system can't handle current demands, to say nothing of the future, and she painted an equally dark picture of the State's social security and health care systems, all of which are tied to a growing dearth of affordable housing and a slumping economy.
"Our schools are failing us, and our systems are failing us," Perez. said. "We can't keep living on borrowed time. The bottom line is what it affects most importantly -- the economy,"
"What we have basically," said Perez, referring to a not too distant future, "is people falling into poverty."
After listening to the presentation, Mayor Pro Tem Kevin McKeown asked the "politically impossible question" of incorporating advocacy of birth control into the planning process.
"We're not talking about the 20 ton elephant in the middle of the room, which is unsustainable population," said McKeown. "Two people making whoopee aren't thinking about (the effects of childbirth on) affordable housing and college tuition 21 years from now."
Councilman Michael Feinstein, who was appointed last year to the influential 18-member regional group and represents Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Culver City and West Hollywood on the Growth Visioning Committee, suggested using legislation at the local and state levels to tackle the issue.
Feinstein said a re-examination of Prop 13 -- the 1978 voter-approved measure that froze residential property taxes and required two-thirds votes on new taxes -- should be seriously considered, along with a statewide living wage law.
"There would be better paying jobs, which means prosperity, and better education, which usually leads to less children," said Feinstein. However, he acknowledged that a living wage law could "lead to better, but fewer jobs."
The committee's goal over the next two years is to seek consensus -- in part through a series of statewide public hearings -- for a vision to guide the development of regional transportation, housing and employment. It also hopes to address air quality in the vast region, which encompasses 38,000 square miles (an area the size of Ohio), covering six counties and 184 cities.
Hammering out a comprehensive plan for a sustainable future will require the help and cooperation of citizens, non-profit groups, the business community, local and state governmental agencies and state legislators, Perez said.
"It's basically making decisions that our kids and our kids' kids will inherit, and that's not that far off," said Perez. "We have to get counties and cities to think beyond their borders."
But forging those ties could be difficult, warned Taskforce Chair Mark Gold. The executive director of Heal the Bay, Gold worries that SCAG's "baggage" based on a "30-year bad track record" could discourage groups from joining a campaign spearheaded by a State and federally mandated government agency nobody trusts.
"The credibility of SCAG is just zero," Gold said.
Perez countered that the project won't be "a SCAG black hole" and that the organization is "trying to bust out of the public agency mentality" with community-oriented projects, such one that aims at sustaining growth.
She noted that the issues of growth facing the region are so paramount, SCAG refused to dismantle the committee even in the face of a historic State budget shortfall.
Taskforce member Bill Selby, an earth science professor at Santa Monica College, saw a golden opportunity in the potential collaborative.
"California is not given its fair share of federal money" because "we can't get one group with one voice to speak for a united cause" to tell the federal government that "Southern California is important," he said.
"And if we're adding two Chicagos, we could get people to lobby the federal government for our fair share," Selby added.
Perez agreed. "We're in this budget mess because we don't have a vision, because we don't have a focus," she said pointing to the unifying potential of the sustainability issue.Two workshops are scheduled to be held at UCLA and the L.A. Convention Center in the near future, Perez said. For more information about the project, called Compass Southern California, and for a listing of times and locations for upcoming workshops visit www.socalcompass.org
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