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Good government in lean times

February 10th, 2012 · No Comments · Commentary

By James Johnson, 7th District Long Beach Councilmember

Like many other cities, Long Beach has faced several financial challenges in recent years. While many residents struggled with a difficult economy, our city government also suffered from the recession. Revenues stagnated from sources such as property taxes, while pension and other costs increased. The result was projected budget deficits extending years into the future, with the potential to seriously harm quality of life here in Long Beach.
Rather than hide from these challenges, we faced them head on. We looked at how we could be more efficient with our resources, asking every city department to cut its costs. We worked with the police and fire associations to negotiate historic pension reforms that will reduce future cuts to public safety. Nonetheless, even with our efforts to increase efficiency and control costs, we had to enact painful cuts to services to live within our means.
Today, our fiscal discipline has resulted in a leaner city government, more focused on delivering core services, like public safety and sidewalk maintenance. This discipline has reduced, but not eliminated, ongoing deficits. So, one may ask– where do we go from here? What constitutes “good government” in these lean times?
First, I believe we must stay the course and maintain the fiscal discipline that has allowed us to manage these challenges so far. We need to figure out how to reform pensions for the remaining employee groups with which we have been unable to reach an agreement, so that we can reduce cuts to vital services. We must resist the temptation to irresponsibly dump current costs onto future generations through budget gimmicks, or to endlessly defer maintenance and other necessary investments that only cause our problems to dramatically increase in the future. We should continue to follow our financial policies, so that our ongoing bills do not exceed our ongoing revenues available to pay them.
Second, we must be honest with our residents. Budget deficits in the coming years will require us to cut valued services to maintain a balanced budget. We will have to ask all city departments to spend less, and we will have to ask our residents to understand the choices we face. Budget reality means that avoiding cuts in one department can only mean deeper cuts in other departments– for example, avoiding reductions in recreation programs might result in a reduction of library hours.
Finally, we need to continue to seek ways to deliver services to our residents as efficiently and effectively as possible. For example, we need to explore how new technology may help us fight crime by lighting dark areas of our city without increasing our electricity bills. While it will be difficult to acquire new parkland, we should be relentless in seeking grants and other opportunities to create access to open space we already own– such as the 40-plus acre California Gardens property owned by the City for over 100 years.
Long Beach is a great city, and our brightest days are yet to come. By facing our financial challenges directly, honestly, and prudently, we will emerge from these challenges both a better and stronger city.

Johnson can be reached at district7@longbeach.gov.

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