Long Beach residents voiced concerns about potential deep and noticeable cuts to community services and public safety that are so far outlined in the proposed city budget for fiscal year 2013, which starts Oct. 1.
Newly elected 8th District Long Beach City Councilmember Al Austin organized the two-hour community budget meeting held on Aug. 27 at the Expo Center on Atlantic Avenue. Top city officials broke down potential impacts to their respective departments and fielded questions from a full crowd of about 50 attendees.
Over the next few months, the Long Beach City Council is tasked with bridging a $17.2 million shortfall. Rising labor costs, increasing employee benefit expenses and declining revenue are driving a “structural” deficit that is expected to continue for the next three fiscal years, said John Gross, Long Beach director of Financial Management. City Manager Patrick West likened the budget process to making harsh “Sophie’s choices.”
Many residents, however, said they have concerns about the potential cumulative impacts of budget proposals that include cutting after-school parks/recreation programs, adaptive recreation programs, pool services, and library services, in addition to major cuts to public safety at a time when city departments have already been stripped down to bare bones due to deficits over the last few years.
Proposals include: reductions to sports and after-school programs at parks throughout the city, including Deforest and Cherry parks; cutting swimming-pool programs at the Will J. Reid Scout Park, Millikan High School and the Silverado Community Center; and curtailing senior services.
Jessica Quintana, an 8th district resident and executive director of Centro CHA, Inc., a Hispanic community association, said the budget cuts proposed are not cost-effective and the impacts to communities may end up costing the City more in the end, since after-school programs for youth often reduce crime.
“I really think [there’s] going to be a domino effect if we don’t keep those programs after school and keep the parks open,” she said. “It’s not going to be cost-effective. We are going to see more of a tax to have more police officers out. It’s just really not a good decision…these are the ingredients that really make up the quality of life for our community.”
Megan Kerr, also an 8th district resident, pointed out that many Long Beach schools are already expected to take a financial hit from major reductions in state funding this year. Reducing youth programs that the City provides would only make matters worse, she said. “The young people are taking a double hit,” Kerr said.
Councilmember Austin said the use of city oil revenue to restore cuts would most likely be an ongoing topic of discussion among council members over the next few weeks. “Long Beach is in a unique position among other cities facing the same problems …we actually have oil revenues,” he said. “I think this is a model we should look at where we create oil price reserves, but use more of the anticipated revenues to restore some of these cuts.”
Currently, the city council uses a fixed rate for calculating the price of oil in budgeting how much revenue would be spent on so-called “one time” expenditures versus ongoing costs. The goal of the city council’s policy is to prevent shortfalls if oil revenue comes in below projections.
Recently, however, Long Beach city staff, during a special city council budget hearing on Aug. 28, proposed increasing the City’s projected price of oil from $65 to $70 per barrel, in addition to shifting about $1 million previously proposed for sidewalk repairs, to prevent cuts to parks, recreation and library programs.
Still, the proposed cutbacks for next fiscal year continue to include major reductions to public safety, including an $8.7 million hit to the Long Beach Police Department, which has already reduced its force by 20 percent over the past decade. Cuts include the elimination of 40 sworn police officer positions that would be reduced through attrition and half of the City’s gang unit, in addition to consolidating north and south divisions into one central division.
On the plus side, the Long Beach Harbor Department has agreed to enhance their security division that would allow the City to keep seven sworn police officers, including one commander, that would be assigned to patrol the harbor area as a contract officer, according to Braden Phillips, the police department’s administrative bureau chief.
P.G. Herman, a 6th district Long Beach resident, however, said the port funding to maintain officers is positive but still doesn’t maintain police service levels for neighborhoods and communities. She added that losing half of the City’s gang unit would be a big loss to the department during a critical time.
“How are we going to be dealing with all the gang uprisings that we have?” Herman asked. “Gangs aren’t going away. We would have not been able to make that huge gang bust this year with US Marshals if you have a reduction in the division … I understand the work will go out to the other division, but we’re certainly not going to handle that.”
Phillips responded by saying, “Is it going to be a challenge to do what we’ve done as effectively as we’ve done it? You betcha. But, again, we have a limited number of resources, and we’re allocating those resources in the best way we think possible to ensure the maximum service for the community. The primary thing we want to ensure is that when you call 911 you’re going to get a timely response.”
The Long Beach Fire Department is also looking at cuts, including the possibility of eliminating a yet-to-be-determined fire engine company and changing to a “one plus one” paramedic service model to reduce costs. Changing to the model would require approval of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services.