Beverly Hills Mayor Bob Wunderlich laid out his mostly optimistic vision for the future of Beverly Hills during his State of the City Address on Oct. 7. The COVID-19 pandemic played heavily in the speech as Wunderlich touched on city finances, business vibrancy, affordable housing, homelessness, and public health and safety.
“I see a city in which, building on our advantages, we maintain a strong commercial base supported by the appeal of our world-class hotels, shopping and restaurants,” said Wunderlich. “I see us as the sophisticated sustainable village with the flavor of some of the great European cities, with a vibrant street life, a walkable city core and peaceful residential neighborhoods. I see us achieving this by positioning Beverly Hills for the future while preserving what we love about the past.”
The mayor’s speech was part of “An Evening with the Mayor” hosted by the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce at Greystone Mansion. The annual event was canceled last year due to the pandemic. This year it drew an audience of about 400 people that included members of the Beverly Hills City Council, city commissioners, Beverly Hills Unified School Board members, business community members and top brass from Beverly Hills Fire and Police departments.
After asking audience members to pause for a moment of silence in honor of the 34 Beverly Hills residents who died due to COVID-19, Wunderlich painted a hopeful picture of recovery and praised the community for its high vaccination rates.
More than 83% of Beverly Hills residents 12 years or older have had at least one round of vaccine. Nationwide, the U.S. is at about 76% of eligible people with at least one dose, according to the County of Los Angeles and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Those are really numbers for which we can be proud,” said Wunderlich. “The greatest impacts of COVID are the personal ones. The most effective actions that we can take to protect ourselves against the current variant, and to reduce the risk of the emergence of other variants, is to take the appropriate safeguards, and that includes getting vaccinated.”
The mayor’s words on vaccinations come amid controversy over recent state and county mandates requiring city employees to be vaccinated. Two days prior to the mayor’s speech, protesters gathered outside Beverly Hills City Hall to rally against the vaccine requirements with fire department employees at the center of the protest. Another like-minded protest at Hawthorne Elementary on Oct. 6 drew the ire of some parents and upset students.
“We as a city are enforcing the county and state requirements,” said Wunderlich. “Let me assure you that with the efforts of Chief Barton and our firefighters, and Chief Rivetti and our police officers, that we will be continuing to provide the high level of services and safety that our city expects and deserves.”
Wunderlich reported that city finances took a hit during the pandemic with the city’s “Big Four” revenue generators, property tax, sales tax, hotel tax and business tax, down a combined 18% in 2020 compared to 2019.
“That is a significant impact,” Wunderlich said. “In the second year [of the pandemic], we’ve started to recover. The Big Four are down about 10% from pre-pandemic. For the fiscal year going forward, we are budgeting for continued improvement, but not quite at pre-pandemic levels.”
The mayor reported that the city’s fiscal year budget is down about 7% from the pre-pandemic budget.
The hotel tax took the largest financial hit from COVID-19, down a reported 73%. Property tax revenue increased as property values have remained strong in the city, according to Wunderlich. He said the city reacted to recent revenue loss by cutting expenses with a voluntary early retirement package, decreased operating expenses and decreased capital spending.
“The result is that we’ve managed to continue to invest substantially in the city, increase our spending on police and fire, and provide exceptional services with only a very modest use of reserves,” Wunderlich said.
The mayor went on to highlight the city’s latest initiatives to help reenergize commerce in Beverly Hills, including Open BH, First Thursdays and a “reimagined” Shop Local program, all aimed at drawing renewed interest in Beverly Hills businesses.
“We have to be the place where businesses want to locate and visitors want to eat and shop,” said Wunderlich. “But we also have to be the place where cross-generational residents want to live. What makes for a sustainable city? We need economic sustainability, but we also do need the vitality provided by a generationally diverse population.”
During a question-and-answer session following the address, an audience member asked what the city is doing about homelessness.
“One of the things that Beverly Hills does is provide sufficient shelter beds so that we have the ability to be able to provide a shelter bed to the people who are without homes in the city,” Wunderlich said in response. “One of the things that does, is to give us the ability to enforce our no camping overnight laws. Some other cities around the area, if they can’t provide a shelter bed to those people who might want it, then they’re not allowed to enforce those laws. So, one of the things that you actually do see is fewer people camping out overnight in Beverly Hills.”
Los Angeles County’s annual homeless count was cancelled this year due to the pandemic, but the 2020 count showed Beverly Hills had 19 unhoused residents. A survey conducted by the Courier in June 2021 showed no homeless encampments within Beverly Hills, though some were located very near the city limits.
Where affordable housing is concerned, the mayor spoke in opposition to the recently signed California Senate Bill 9, saying it takes away Beverly Hills’ ability to control its own fate where housing is concerned. The bill allows property owners throughout the state to split single-family plots and build duplexes on them, regardless of local zoning law. This effectively rezones all single-family plots statewide to potentially become four-family plots.
Speaking about his vision for a sustainable Beverly Hills, the mayor said the city needs to prepare for climate change and drought, pointing to recent water sustainability initiatives in the city. He also praised the Beverly Hills Complete Streets Plan for improving safety for mixed-mode transportation and the forthcoming Purple Line subway stop as fitting in with his goals for the city.
“Although many businesses and residents have suffered greatly during the pandemic, we as the city, because of the strength of vibrancy and management practices of our city, have weathered the financial impacts of the pandemic far better than many other cities who had to resort to service cutbacks and involuntary layoffs,” Wunderlich said. “Looking forward, the economic prospects of the city are bright.”