After years of cuts, Long Beach is projecting something that the City’s General Fund hasn’t had in a decade– extra cash.
City officials are anticipating a $3.5-million surplus with no layoffs or significant reductions in services next fiscal year. On top of that, officials are planning to make $45 million worth of investments in streets, sidewalks, parks and libraries after coming into a windfall of “one-time” revenue.
That’s a stark contrast to the situation last year, when city management was planning to make harsh cuts to General Fund services, including police and fire departments.
“What a difference a year makes,” said 8th District Long Beach Councilmember Al Austin during a budget hearing he presented with top city management on Wednesday, Aug. 21 at the Expo Arts Center on Atlantic Avenue in Bixby Knolls.
With an attendance of about 25 residents, there were a lot more empty chairs compared to the packed budget meeting a year ago when the City was in a much tougher, cash-strapped position. Still, a number of 8th District residents filled out surveys, providing the Council office with recommendations on the proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2014, which starts Oct. 1.
Residents also voiced concerns about a number of issues that may affect the local community, including scaled-back gang enforcement, slight reductions to code enforcement and graffiti abatement, and the lack of a fire engine and paramedic unit at Fire Station 12 in north Long Beach that is expected to celebrate its grand reopening on Sept. 24.
“You don’t want this area to slip,” said 8th District resident Laurie Angel, who cautioned that gang enforcement, graffiti abatement and code enforcement are critical for preventing further degradation of the community. “It’s extremely important that funding for those programs is not one time but it’s continuous and that we maintain and improve services that we have.”
John Sullivan, a seven-year 8th District resident, agreed with other residents and the councilmember that the City’s graffiti-abatement program has been quick to respond to reports of graffiti. Sullivan added, however, that the City needs to “hold the line” on taggers and not cut the graffiti-abatement service, since Union Pacific doesn’t do enough to wipe away graffiti on overpasses, bridges and railroad infrastructure in north Long Beach.
“They’re graffiti-taggers, and they’re either gang members or divided gang members, and they’re proving their point,” he said. “We can’t cut that because it’s going to lead to more problems.”
John Gross, Long Beach director of financial management, said the loss of redevelopment funding has left the city short on funds to maintain code enforcement and graffiti abatement at the same level as the current fiscal year.
As a result, code enforcement will be cut by $196,000, and graffiti abatement will be slashed by $150,000, which means there will only be funding for four graffiti-abatement trucks instead of five, he said.
He said the city manager and mayor both recommend using the $3.5-million surplus to combat deficits in fiscal years 2015 and 2016.
Gross added that the general fund surplus came about through fiscal prudence, major pension reforms, and an increase in property tax revenue due to the loss of redevelopment.
Another issue brought up was the fact that the City Council just this week ended a maintenance contract with Anaheim-based Marina Landscaping Inc. after the City received a number of complaints about the level of maintenance service for medians and parks, including those in north Long Beach, such as Scherer Park and Los Cerritos Park, within the last three months.
City officials pointed out that conditions at the parks have become a mess, with withering plants and grass, adding that there may be monetary damages.
Meanwhile, some residents, including former 8th District Councilmember Rae Gabelich, expressed concerns that top city management may not be doing enough to restore cuts to city services, bringing up rumblings that a 15-percent pay raise for city management is in the works.
“When are the restorations coming?” asked Gabelich, who added that city management is “misleading” the public regarding the budget.
Assistant City Manager Suzanne Frick denied any such claim but added that the City is currently in discussions with bargaining units and an employee-contract proposal will be coming forward to the City Council for approval in late September. “This budget does not include raises for management,” she iterated.
Ken Cordua, who has lived in the 8th District for 14 years, said he wanted the Council to focus on coming up with an economic-development strategy to fill retail vacancies throughout the city, including the Bixby Knolls Ralphs, which has already closed, and the Orchard Supply Hardware (OSH), which is in the process of closing.
“We’re having this big windfall, but what is the City doing to … [fill] in the Ralphs grocery store or Orchard or other vacancies in the city that will help generate revenue?” he asked.
Frick said the City has already established a position in the city manager’s office being filled by Mike Conway to deal with the sale of leftover redevelopment-owned properties, in addition to working with landowners to fill other vacant property.
Austin said Ralphs management is looking for a new buyer for the property, while representatives for Glendale-based Gaska, Inc., which owns the Bixby Knolls Shopping Center, where OSH is located, plans to develop the east portion of the center, which he said has been long overdue.
“Once that is done, they believe they will be in a position to recruit the right type of retailers to make that shopping center successful,” said Austin, who added that the owners of a shopping center nearby where a post office is located have some “ambitious plans” as well.
Before the proposed Fiscal Year 2014 budget is approved next month, the Council is conducting budget hearings with various presentations on Sept. 3 and Sept. 10, while the Budget Oversight Committee will meet on Sept. 3 and Sept. 9 at City Hall.