Measure A Committee Asks First Budget Questions as Tax Nears Implementation

 

A map of the proposed projects the city intends to complete in the first three years of the Measure A tax. Photo courtesy of The City of Long Beach. 

The Long Beach Transaction and Use Tax Citizens’ Advisory Committee held its first meeting inside city hall Wednesday night, its members seated behind the very dais that typically holds the city council it is charged with overseeing, specifically in regard to how said officials spend Measure A funds.

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Appointed by Mayor Robert Garcia and confirmed by the city council, the five-member committee has been charged with the task of monitoring the use of the estimated $48 million in annual revenue expected to be generated by the one percent sales tax approved by voters during the June 7 primary. The members will serve two-year terms with a four-year term limit.

“It is your responsibility to be able to review the numbers, review the projects and be able to confidently affirm and continue to reaffirm that me as mayor and the council is appropriately working on the projects that we said we would work on,” Garcia said in his opening address to the committee.

The five person committee—Member Joel Yuhas was absent—sorted typical housekeeping issues for a new committee, namely electing a chair (former Ninth District Councilman Steve Neal), vice chair (Jane Netherton, chair emeritus at International City Bank) and getting briefed by city staff on the status of how the revenue from the tax’s first year in practice had been allocated.

Measure B, the accompanying "rainy day fund" that was also approved by voters, stipulates that one percent of Measure A revenue be placed into the fund, but the committee will have no say over how those funds are dispersed. 

City staff outlined a tailored version of the still-pending 2017 fiscal year budget, with an emphasis on where the projected $35.6 million in net revenue is going. Assistant City Manager Tom Modica, Assistant Finance Director Lea Eriksen and Public Works Director Craig Beck took turns informing the members of the three-year capital improvement project before taking questions from the newest members of the city’s commission membership.

Because the tax doesn’t officially kick in until January, the actual construction phase will be pushed into the second half of the fiscal year. The city’s financial management team decided to split the revenue generated from the tax into two "buckets," with one funding one-time expenses like infrastructure upgrades and the other funding ongoing expenditures like staff, which represents ongoing annual expenses.

“Because measure A is not a 30-year tax, it’s actually a 10-year tax and it dips after six years, we need to be very cognizant from a financial management point of view which bucket of money is going to be available and what types are going to be ongoing versus what types are going to be one-time,” Modica said.

This fact led the staff to push much of the capital projects into the first six years of the tax before it sunsets and drops to a half-cent increase, effectively eliminating half of the revenue generated. The last four years of the tax and its revenues will go toward maintaining staff levels and other ongoing costs.

In May, the city released its three-year infrastructure improvement plan which detailed what it intends to do with the first influx of Measure A cash. Listed in that $150 million plan were prioritized areas of improvement including over $90 million in street repairs, $15 million for sidewalks and over $18.5 million in park improvements. This is in addition to staffing levels being maintained by virtue of new academies for both the fire and police departments announced by the mayor at the initial budget unveiling last month.


 

But what happens to all the additions after the tax goes away completely, or if it doesn't generate the revenues it’s expected to?

Eriksen said there are contingency plans. Certain projects will be reprioritized on the fly and pushed back into later years if the tax doesn’t yield its projected revenue stream. Services and ongoing expenses would take precedent over projects and the scope of need would be measured against the funds available. And as one commissioner asked and had confirmed, projects that aren’t fully funded won't be started as a way to put a “band-aid on something that requires major surgery”.

After the 10 years lapses, the city is hopeful that a combination of development which would increase the city’s tax base, the potential rise in the price of oil and other one-time funding sources can be identified to balance an expanded expense list brought about by Measure A additions.

“We have 10 years to develop our plan on how we will continue to fund our structural operation,” Eriksen said. “We will be working with city council as we approach the end of those 10 years to come up with solutions; we’ve been structurally balancing our budget for the last 10 years and we’ll continue to do that and develop a plan using other revenues.”

The most pointed, and perhaps the most telling question in terms of how much power the committee will wield came from Vice Chair Netherton. Specifically, she asked city staff if the committee was merely there to assess decisions that have already been made.

“It appears to me with everything I’m hearing that the oversight of Measure A is an after-the-fact oversight,” Netherton said. “When we’re looking at these things, they’ve already happened and we’re just reviewing, if you will, what has happened. At that point making a statement that says ‘whoops, we don’t think that happened the way we were told.’ But that’s after the fact.”


 

Modica explained the body would serve as a checks and balance to the council on the uses of Measure A but the council and mayor, according to the city charter, have ultimate oversight over the budget and its input would likely be received in hindsight.

“But similar to other tax measures, it is that after-the-fact making sure,” Modica said. “We’re going to share with you before the fact and after the fact and you have the ability to say ‘that is in conformance’ or it is not and make that recommendation to the council.”

The city will compile reports from the committee as well as in progress photos, timelines and expectations to showcase the work that’s actually being accomplished with the Measure A funds as a show of good faith to the community. Modica said the effort is “above and beyond” what the city normally provides in terms of budget information, and that it will borrow from other transparency models to design websites for community engagement.

The committee is expected to meet quarterly, with the next anticipated meeting coming sometime in February. That meeting will commence after the tax takes effect and year-end figures can be reported from the city’s financial staff.



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