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Sacramento mayor has millions of taxpayer dollars at his disposal. Can he complete his vision?

Mayor Darrell Steinberg reflects on his first two years of office

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg reflects on his first two years into his term, February 19, 2019, in his office at City Hall.
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Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg reflects on his first two years into his term, February 19, 2019, in his office at City Hall.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg – and the city he governs – are at a turning point.

Two years into his first term, Steinberg is navigating a complex list of demands. He wants millions spent on the city’s large homeless population, while also trying to attract Fortune 500 companies, a Major League Soccer franchise and build tourist destinations.

It’s been nearly a year since Sacramento police shot and killed Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man, and Clark’s death has sparked a larger debate about racial and economic inequality in Sacramento. Steinberg wants millions spent on disadvantaged neighborhoods, but some in Sacramento want as much attention – and money – spent on core city services like firefighters and cops.

The mayor spent much of the past two years compiling a deep well of public resources to make a noticeable difference in the city’s most pressing issues. He secured millions in state, federal and private funding for homeless shelters and services. He convinced voters in November to approve a sales tax increase, which he wants to dedicate largely to disadvantaged neighborhoods and to jump start a series of high-profile projects. And he’s helped set aside millions more to revive the city’s long-ignored riverfront.

“Ultimately I may judge myself when it’s all said and done by what I’ve done for the people who struggle the most, but I also know people want me to deliver across the board,” Steinberg said. “I think thus far, we have laid the foundation to do just that because there’s nothing we’re ignoring in terms of issue areas. Nothing.”

He may encounter political friction along the way. His City Council colleagues have different ideas about how to best use all the new public money to improve both the city and their vastly different districts. Whether Steinberg can convince his colleagues to spend the money how he wants — and how he promised voters it would be spent — remains to be seen.

As Steinberg rolls into 2019 – what he described as “the year of breakthroughs” – he likely has the kind of resources at his disposal no other occupant of his office at City Hall has had before. Can he accomplish what voters and taxpayers expect?

HOMELESSNESS

Between July 2015 and July 2017, the city’s homeless service division spent roughly $4.1 million on outreach, housing and temporary sheltering for homeless. But over the past year and a half, the city has raised or allocated — through public and private sources — more than $75 million to address homelessness.

“I don’t know what it is about your personality or your abilities, but you rolled into your seat as mayor and all of a sudden, resources have appeared in a very significant way to deal with an amazing and immense challenge,” Councilman Jeff Harris told Steinberg during a recent City Council meeting.

Steinberg has raised $5.5 million in private funds from Sutter Health, Dignity Health, UC Davis and the family of Helene and David S. Taylor for homeless shelters with services.

As chair of the Big City Mayors, Steinberg negotiated for the 2018-19 state budget to include $500 million for emergency shelter for the homeless around California, according to his spokeswoman Mary Lynne Vellinga. The city received $5.6 million in new state funds and expects to receive more state funding from the 2019-20 state budget.

The city will have access to up to $32 million in federal funding for a homeless outreach and service program called Whole Person Care between 2017 and 2020. So far, the city plans to spend $7 million of its own money on the program and has raised $17 million from local health systems.

Sacramento was the first city in the state to apply for the funding, which supports an outreach program that will help keep people from overusing emergency rooms and ambulances, as well as provide medical and social services to get them on the path to housing.

When voters approved the Measure U sales tax increase in November, it freed up a nearly $16 million reserve fund in city money for one-time expenses. The City Council approved Steinberg’s proposal to spend it on homelessness.

Steinberg has made big moves this winter. In early December, he asked all eight council members to find locations for shelters in their districts. Earlier this month, he announced a $40 million proposal to open nearly 800 new shelter beds with services across the city. His plan calls for at least four 100-bed Sprung-tent shelters in the next two years, as well as converting two private properties to shelters and adding additional services to three existing shelters.

People would stay in the shelters for about four months, meaning up to 2,400 people could stay at the shelters per year on their way to more permanent housing, Steinberg said. More than 3,600 people were living without permanent shelter in Sacramento County in 2017, the last time a detailed census of the homeless population was released.

Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, was relieved to hear Steinberg’s plan.

“He’s not just talking about it, he’s gone out and gotten the resources to be able to have a larger response to end homelessness,” Erlenbusch said.

Erlenbusch wanted more shelters open by now — a homeless person dies about every six days in Sacramento County, he frequently tells the council — but believes Steinberg is making it happen as fast as he can.

“He’s moving at light speed for government,” Erlenbusch said.

Councilman Larry Carr, Councilwoman Angelique Ashby and Councilman Allen Warren have concerns with Steinberg’s shelter proposal. They want less-costly options to free up money for other city services like police officers, fire protection and parks. They also want to address the city’s long-term debt and pension obligations.

Ashby wants the city to open more shelters for women and children. Children are not allowed in a north Sacramento shelter on Railroad Drive the city opened in December 2017.

Even if the council approves the proposal, the city still faces an immense challenge in finding sites. So far, only Harris and Councilman Jay Schenirer have publicly proposed sites in their districts. Both are facing opposition from residents and businesses.

Homeless activist James “Faygo” Clark, who’s been asking the City Council to address homelessness for years, said he would prefer smaller shelter options, but that Steinberg’s proposal is better than nothing.

“Even though it’s taking forever and I don’t think they’re going to use the right approach, it’s still better than not doing anything,” Clark said. “At least we’re getting some traction, finally.”

There has not been significant progress on other fronts. Steinberg announced a plan in January 2017 to build 1,000 tiny homes for the homeless over three years. One year later, there’s still no plan for tiny homes.

Steinberg last month criticized the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency for the delay. Since then, SHRA officials have helped the city find sites for homeless shelters and are working with private property owners to convert properties like run down motels into shelters, Steinberg said.

“I don’t hold grudges,” Steinberg said. “I don’t know if it’s a strength or a weakness, but whatever it is, we went right back after a difficult moment and we’re working together.”

Juggling act

While Steinberg maintains a focus on his passion for helping the homeless and struggling neighborhoods, he has also made it a priority to deliver on big, flashy projects. Many business leaders were skeptical of whether he could devote attention and resources to both.

“When he ran for mayor, everybody was telling me we were gonna go backwards because all the mayor was going to care about was social causes and neighborhoods,” said Barry Broome, president and CEO of the Greater Sacramento Economic Council, which works to attract new businesses. “I think he has had an amazing ability to balance all of the needs of the community.”

Steinberg displays that balance while he’s out in public. He was greeted just as warmly this month walking into a Boys and Girls Club gymnasium in south Sacramento as he was walking into a groundbreaking event for Fortune 500 health care company Centene in North Natomas.

When he arrived at the Boys and Girls Club on a recent Friday for a “pop up” activity night — another program for which he secured city and private funding – he joined a group of teens playing basketball. Afterward, they asked him for photos and he asked them about their lives. Where did they go to school? What did they like to read? One 16-year-old Luther Burbank student, Aria Russell, walked into the gym to take a photo with the mayor and walked out with an internship possibility with the Thousand Strong initiative — a program Steinberg launched that aims to place 1,000 high school students in paid internships.

A few days later, Steinberg was swarmed by people in business suits at a ceremonial groundbreaking for a corporate center for Centene, a Missouri-based health care giant. The Fortune 500 company last year announced it will open its West Coast headquarters in North Natomas, creating hundreds of new jobs. The announcement came after Steinberg and Ashby helped broker a deal to award up to $13 million in city incentives to the company.

Since Steinberg has been mayor, out-of-state developers and real estate brokers have shown increased interest in investing downtown, said Michael Ault, executive director of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership.

“He has helped raise Sacramento’s profile,” Ault said. “We are on lists of best places for start-ups, best places to live, best places people are moving to nationally that we never have been before.”

City residents for decades have wanted the Sacramento riverfront and the massive railyard property developed. There has been progress on both fronts.

Steinberg helped broker a financing plan for the Sacramento Convention Center, Community Center Theater and Memorial Auditorium that freed up millions of dollars for the Sacramento riverfront. The money could one day fund tourist attractions, a public market, housing and other amenities in Old Sacramento and other sections of the river bank north of downtown.

“I think there’s a renewed sense of optimism in Old Sacramento amongst not only the owners, but developers that are now saying, ‘Wow, if that’s happening, maybe we should look at other projects, hotels and other things down there,’” Ault said. “I think they’re finally feeling it’s our time.”

Just east of the waterfront, there are big plans for the 240-acre railyard property that has sat vacant for decades.

Last month, Kaiser Permanente announced it had purchased land to build a major medical center at the site. Billionaire Ron Burkle signed a deal to purchase Republic FC and build a Major League Soccer stadium and entertainment district there, if the city is awarded an expansion team in MLS.

“He’s been relentless on MLS,” Ault said. “I think it would have been easy to have said, ‘Let’s move on to other priorities.’ I think he was essential in finding a new major investor to do that. He knows this window is here.”

Many in Sacramento thought the window had closed, after the city could not find the billionaire investor MLS demanded and three other cities secured expansion spots. Still, Sacramento’s place in MLS is not a sure thing. Several other cities are fighting for expansion franchises and the league has not provided a timeline for when it plans to announce the next team.

After Stephon Clark

Three days after Sacramento police fatally shot Clark in the backyard of his grandmother’s Meadowview home, Steinberg said something that sticks in the minds of many in the black community.

“Based on the videos alone, I cannot second guess the split-second decisions of our officers and I’m not going to do that,” Steinberg said in a March statement.

“That’s not what we needed to hear at the time,” said Berry Accius, a black community activist. “He didn’t understand it wasn’t just a Stephon Clark thing. It was an equity, equality thing.”

Derrell Roberts, a North Sacramento activist who’s known the mayor for more than 30 years, challenged Steinberg to think about what his reaction would have been had Clark been his son. Later that week, Steinberg walked back the statement, calling it “unartful.” Today, he calls it a mistake.

“I think you have to be willing to admit when you make a mistake,” Steinberg said.

In the weeks and months that followed, Steinberg met with black community leaders, some for the first time, to talk about the complex challenges facing the black community — treatment by police, a lack of youth activities and economic barriers facing black neighborhoods and businesses.

As the city prepares for District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert to announce whether she will charge the officers who shot Clark, Steinberg continues to meet with the black community. He said he has “learned some significant lessons.”

“It has made me dig deeper,” Steinberg said. “It has made me think even more about the connection between historic inequity and the way a lot of people in our community live today.”

Steinberg devoted the majority of his annual State of the City speech to the issue. He said Clark should not have died. He said he would support changes to state laws so officers who exercise their power to take lives “harshly or unfairly” could be held accountable.

Accius noticed a positive shift in the mayor’s actions and comments.

“Our voices are different now in these rooms and we’re talking at such a level now where now it resonates,” Accius said. “Stephon Clark is his reality boost.”

Roberts agreed.

“I think that after (the Clark shooting), he recognized, ‘I need to step back and hear what people are saying versus responding to what they’re saying,’” said Roberts, CEO of the Roberts Family Development Center nonprofit that serves youth from disadvantaged neighborhoods. “That’s the difference when you become a real leader. You step back and you hear what people are saying, not simply responding as if you have to have an answer.”

Tanya Faison, founder of Black Lives Matter Sacramento, commended the mayor for meeting with black community organizations, but said she wants harsher consequences for officers who shoot unarmed black men — something she doesn’t hear Steinberg talk about enough. Accius and Faison are disappointed Steinberg hasn’t used his position to publicly pressure the DA to charge the officers who shot Clark or to pressure City Manager Howard Chan to fire them.

“Even though he doesn’t have the power to fire an officer, his recommendation and his suggestions are going to go a long way because he does have the power to influence the people he has built relationships with,” Faison said.

On that criticism, Steinberg said his State of the City comments are relevant.

“Everybody has their responsibilities and their job to do and to carry out their public responsibilities whether elected or appointed and using their best judgment,” Steinberg said. “I’ve made where I stand clear … I said the outcome was wrong. I said he should not have died. I said I’d be for changing state law to change the standard.”

Spending priorities

Steinberg proposes spending $40 million in new Measure U sales tax revenue for at least five years on disadvantaged communities.

Accius wants to see a significant portion of the money spent on loans, grants and incentives to help more black residents in areas like Oak Park, Meadowview and Del Paso Heights start their own businesses.

“We need to revitalize the community to where we have more businesses than we have churches and liquor stores,” Accius said.

Steinberg has said he also wants to use Measure U money to revitalize Latino and Asian communities, especially commercial corridors like Stockton and Franklin boulevards. Steinberg said his plan to invest in disadvantaged neighborhoods was vital to the passage of Measure U.

“If I hadn’t made equity and economic development the motivation behind the new Measure U, the city would have only sought to renew the half cent,” Steinberg said. “That’s indisputable.”

The city’s firefighter union is concerned not enough Measure U money will go to the department, said Robert Padilla, spokesman for the union. “We’ve been neglected for 30 years,” Padilla said. “We understood that the Measure U money was going to be part of the solution.”

The fire department needs at least four new fire stations, Padilla said. A station in southeast Sacramento, near many cannabis manufacturing facilities, has been closed for years, Padilla said. It sometimes takes firefighters 15 minutes to respond to calls to the Delta Shores shopping area in south Sacramento because there is no station nearby, he said.

The union donated $75,000 to the Measure U campaign in 2018, making it one of the largest supporters of the cause, according to campaign documents. The political committee controlled by Steinberg spent just over $1 million in total.

Ashby — whom the police and fire unions endorsed for mayor over Steinberg — frequently advocates for core services during council meetings. She worries that after the city spends its reserves on homeless and new Measure U money on other initiatives, there won’t be anything left.

“When we get to June, I just don’t wanna hear we don’t have enough money for parks, or we can’t increase (the) library share or we can’t add fire stations,” Ashby said during a meeting earlier this month.

To that end, Steinberg proposes the city use up to $60 million in annual sales tax money and “significant” anticipated revenue from the cannabis industry to fund core city services. As the city grows the tax base, it can allocate more, he said.

“You could put all the $50 million … in to core city services and do nothing to grow the economy and that would get washed away in a second recession,” Steinberg said.

Mid-way through his term, Steinberg is on track to deliver on his many promises. But he will need more time to get it all done – perhaps more than the two years remaining on his first term, he said. Is a re-election bid in his future?

“I’m enjoying the work and, you know, I intend to continue,” Steinberg said. “But that’s not a declaration. I still need to talk to my family before I make any official announcement, but I do think it takes more than four years to get it done.”

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Theresa Clift covers Sacramento City Hall. Before joining The Bee in 2018, she worked as a local government reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Daily Press in Virginia and the Wausau Daily Herald in Wisconsin. She grew up in Michigan and graduated from Central Michigan University.

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