Austin, Ovalle, Thrash-Ntuk discuss 8th District funding, campaign financing during candidate forum

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Images from campaign websites

The Los Cerritos Neighborhood Association hosted an 8th District candidate forum on Wednesday, Feb. 12–– less than three weeks before election night on March 3.

LBReport.com live-streamed the forum, and archived the footage on its website.

Moderator Bob Gill asked candidates Juan Ovalle, Tunua Thrash-Ntuk and incumbent Al Austin a series of questions ranging from funding to safety in the community.

The first question revolved around funding for the eighth district.

“Do you think the district is receiving its fair share of City resources for infrastructure and services?” Gill asked.

Ovalle tackled the question first, saying that he believes the district does not receive the appropriate funding.

He noted that services are also at a loss, adding that public-safety infrastructure, such as Fire Station 9, and economic corridors are not receiving the appropriate funds needed to grow.

“The only way we’re going to fix that is by cutting the ties of special-interest groups hanging over the budget in the City of Long Beach,” he said.

Thrash-Ntuk followed up the question by saying that “the eighth district deserves better.”

She noted that crucial conversations concerning district budgeting–– and tax-spending overview from Measure A funds–– are not happening on a more frequent basis.

Thrash-Ntuk added that crumbling streets and closed storefronts are clear signs that the district requires more financial support.

Thrash-Ntuk’s solution would be to create more neighborhood groups and town hall meetings to engage with the community.

“Together, we can go to City hall to make sure that the eighth district gets what it deserves,” she said.

Austin approached the question in a different tone, stating that the district was receiving the appropriate amount of funding. He added that before his involvement with the council, the City did not invest in the district’s infrastructure.

Austin said that Measure A has been a “great infusion” into the City’s budget in regards to infrastructure and that an “unprecedented” amount of money had been invested into the district in the last two to three years.

“I’ve been able to secure over $5 million to upgrade Davenport Park,” Austin said. “I’ve secured, last year, $8.5 million to replace our Fire Station 9.”

He closed his answer by stating that the eighth is competing with the other districts to secure funding, but that it is moving in the right direction.

Gill moved on to the topic of homelessness in the district. He added that it is a major state issue, and asked candidates how they would approach homelessness in the city.

Thrash-Ntuk responded first, saying that the community needs to take a compassionate approach when addressing the issue.

Thrash-Ntuk said she would want to conduct an audit of Measure H–– a countywide one-quarter of a cent sales tax used to fund homeless outreach–– to see where its funds are being spent. She said that she participated in the City’s homeless count, and saw individuals living on tennis courts, in alleyways and on the railroads.

“It’s necessary that we figure out the resources from Measure H to identify, be able to triage and move those people out of those places that are not safe for our community,” she said.

Austin followed up the question and stated that Long Beach has been a leader in homeless outreach and services. He added that the County had awarded the City $23 billion to fund homeless services and said the council had developed a homelessness committee to address the issue.

“I think you are going to start seeing the results of those funds come to fruition within the next several months,” Austin said.

He added that a homeless shelter was slated to open in June this year with 125 to 150 beds a night. Austin said that the City had to focus primarily on shelter and affordable housing for the transient population, but added he was not in favor of taxing the public to do so.

Ovalle took to the mic and stated that homelessness was a difficult problem to fix. He noted that homelessness is a complex issue that encompasses more than people living on the street.

Ovalle also participated in the homeless count, both last year and this year, and said that many of the individuals living on the street have mental-health issues. He added that downtown has become highly gentrified, and has forced people onto the streets.

“The folks sitting next to me approve of that, and actually endorsed that,” he claimed. “Taxation and more taxation is the only answer they have.”

Following homelessness, another hot-ticket item was discussed–– Measure A.

The sales tax was voter-approved in 2016 to fund public safety infrastructure citywide. It was projected to end in 2027. The measure is back on the ballot for the March 3 election, this time seeking an extension and eliminating the 10-year sunset to continue funding public-safety projects.

Gill asked Austin, Ovalle and Thrash-Ntuk if they supported the measure extension.

The councilmember started by saying he did support Measure A’s extension. He said that it has funded multiple city projects, started a police academy and restored fire engines.

He stated that the measure was being placed on the ballot again because Long Beach would fall under L.A. County sales-tax laws after Measure A sunsets in 2027.

“The city council has made a strategic decision to put this on the ballot and put it before you,” Austin said. “Do you want the money to stay local, or do you want it to go elsewhere where you can’t control?”

Ovalle followed up the question by asking the public to keep their eyes open as to where Measure A funds were going.

“It’s not about taxation, it’s about what you do with what you have,” Ovalle said. “This City needs to learn how to be fiscally responsible and manage what it has.”

He noted that the measure funds promised to support police new hires, yet 200 police positions still need to be filled and that the field Gang Unit within the Long Beach Police Department was displaced.

“Our streets are some of the worst in L.A. County,” Ovalle said. “We should be Dubai by the sea. Instead of charging you more, instead of taxing you more, we should be giving you checks back.”

Thrash-Ntuk started by saying that no one wants to pay the higher tax, but she does support Measure A.

She said that even if Measure A did not pass, residents were not going to see lower taxes.

“We live in a county that has already decided that Measure H and Measure R are coming for the sales tax,” Thrash-Ntuk said.

She added that there has been little accountability as to how Measure A funds have been used within the City, and that may be the root of people’s distrust.

“We don’t necessarily see the improvements in our neighborhood,” she said. “Even if those improvements have been enumerated, those may not have been our priorities as a community.”

Austin was allowed to comment further on the topic of Measure A and said that a citizen oversight committee kept the City accountable as to how the money is spent. He also added that Measure A collected $77 million last year, making up a large portion of the public-safety section under the City’s General Fund.

Staying on the topic of funding, Gill also asked the candidates about their campaign contributors. He asked them how many entities donated from outside of Long Beach, and if those outside entities could influence elections.

Thrash-Ntuk answered first, stating that approximately 30% of the funding she received for her campaign came from Long Beach residents and small businesses.

“Yes, a large portion of the funds that I have received comes from outside the city,” she said. “I attribute that to the fact that I grew up about 15 minutes away from here, that I have taken money from people that I went to elementary school with–– junior high, high school.”

She added that those people knew about her public service experience and wished to support her election campaign.

Austin replied by stating that he has been involved in campaigns for over 25 years and said Long Beach had some of the lowest campaign-finance limits, making it difficult for campaigns to collect money.

“It’s very difficult to amass any kind of money,” he said. “I’m proud to say that I have a very balanced campaign-finance portfolio that includes a lot of community contributors–– many people right here in this room–– my family, but also unions as well as businesses. I’m supported by businesses, I’m supported by labor unions and I’m supported by the community.”

Ovalle responded by saying that large amounts of money were coming from outside of town. He added that money from outside groups to support elections in Long Beach “taints the water.”

As he gestured to the room, Ovalle said that his financial support came from his neighbors, friends and family.

“These are the people that I am upheld to,” he said. “Not special interest, or outside influence.”