$2.8 billion city budget approved in late night vote by City Council

In a marathon meeting Tuesday night, the Long Beach City Council approved a $2.8 billion budget that included money to bolster Fire Department services near the Traffic Circle and begin rebuilding a shuttered fire station in Bixby Knolls.

The budget also included money requested by Mayor Robert Garcia to fund a $680,000 Clean Team. The four-person team, which will have its own vehicles, will work to reach one of Garcia’s goals of Long Beach becoming one of the cleanest big cities in the country by enhancing the city’s already established cleaning programs.

The mayor’s requests also included a $350,000 pilot-program with Long Beach Transit to provide transportation for Long Beach College Promise students, $100,000 to install more historic lamps along Bluff Park and $500,000 over the next two years to fund HIV and STD outreach within the city.

The council also went along with recommendations from the city’s three-person Budget Oversight Committee allocating money from voter-approved sales-tax Measure A to restore Fire Engine 17, build a temporary home for Fire Station 9 and begin building a permanent replacement for the station, which was forced to close earlier this year due to mold issues.

Measure A is a sales-tax increase adopted by voters in 2016. Extending Measure A permanently past its original 10-year sunset date of 2027 will be the subject of a vote during the upcoming March 2020 elections.

But discussion among council members later ground to a halt over some recommendations from the budget committee. The meeting dragged on into Wednesday morning where the council voted to approve the budget after nearly six hours of deliberation.

New funds could revive Fire Station 9 while city finds permanent solution

The conversation slowly devolved into a power struggle behind the dais on points of contention such as which department should oversee expenditures of one time youth-strategic funds that were approved during last year’s budget cycle and meant to provide programs to benefit underserved communities and at-risk youth.

The committee had recommended freezing the usage of the funds and transferring them from the city’s health department to the the Parks, Recreation and Marine Department. City Manager Pat West said council members on the committee recommended this because the health department “normally engaged in the CDBG [Community Development Block Grant] areas of the city and hasn’t normally worked in areas that are not CDGB.”

CDBG grants awarded by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development are typically awarded to improve living and economic conditions in low-income parts of cities. West said that the parks department was identified as potentially being able to use the funds more efficiently because it is used to working all over the city.

That this was discussed with just two members of committee and not the full council angered some members of the council, with one claiming the move could be perceived as political.

“To hear this come out today from the Budget Oversight Committee and then provided to the council to make a choice I think that’s unfair given a full year’s work, not just for city staff, but for community groups that were getting ready to get to the main point,” Councilman Rex Richardson said.

“This, without giving the proper amount of time to talk with staff and see what happens…this will seem like a power grab or a political decision.”

Councilwoman Suzie Price, who serves as vice chair on the committee and was part of those discussions with West, defended the proposal, stating that the funds were never intended to be focused on one type of youth and that citywide funds should serve citywide goals.

“When we allocate dollars for citywide efforts every council district needs to be engaged. Every single one,” Price said. “When we adopted the youth strategic plan it was not for a specific category of youth or youth in a certain area, it was for youth in the entire city and the youth in the entire city needs support and guidance and resources.”

The back and forth added hours to an already long process of allocating the billions of dollars that will fund the functions of the city over the next fiscal year that starts in October. Adoption of the budget did not come without some last-minute efforts by the community to push for funding to be filtered toward certain services like increased language access spending, and a protest of a planned water rate increase.

The budget proposed spending about $15,000 for one half day of language access training and an additional $80,000 in one-time resources, but members of the community who do not speak English as their first language advocated for $250,000 to expand translation services and for a community organization to promote the services.

One-time funding for language access in last year’s budget had been cut in half in this year’s proposed budget. Speaking through translators, some residents have contended for weeks that basic city services are not properly translated, or translated at all, and have left some residents of the city unable to easily find help to answer questions when paying bills or being able to understand dialogue when attending City Council meetings.

One Downtown resident who identified herself as Herlinda echoed what multiple speakers had complained of, that translation services during City Council meetings lack quality and accuracy and that City Hall lacks proper signage for non-English speakers.

“I had the experience of feeling confused because there were no signs in my language telling me where to go or how to get in,” she said of attending a City Council meeting last month. “The translation [during the meeting] was not a good quality. It was difficult to understand what was being said.”

Assistant City Manager Tom Modica sought to clarify perceived cuts to language access funding by stating that basic language needs have been built into departmental budgets as the city continues its efforts to bake the policy into all of its functions.

While speaking a second language is not a prerequisite to being hired by the city, it has hundreds of bilingual employees that Modica said would be receiving some training to familiarize them with the city’s policy on being paid a bonus for using their skills to serve the community.

“We’re at the point now where individual departments are using their budgets to do language access,” Modica said.

The water rate increases, which were also adopted by the City Council along with the proposed budget, were decried by a handful of residents who showed up to the budget hearing.

They alleged the rate increase, the second since 2018, amounted to a tax which needed to be approved by the voters. A group of residents pushed the City Council to block the proposed rate increase which would amount to nearly a 20% increase since last year’s passage of Measure M, a vote that allowed the city to continue a practice that it was being sued over as it transferred about $18 million in sewer and waterline fees to the general fund.

Measure M opponents file complaint with state claiming ‘violations’ made by mayor, council

Since voters approved the measure the city’s water commission voted to raise rates twice. Last year it approved a 7.2% increase and proposed another 12% increase with the passage of last night’s budget.

East Long Beach resident Corliss Lee said that over 1,400 protest letters were delivered to the commission last Thursday during a procedural hearing held before forwarding the proposed increases to the City Council but that figure fell well short of 45,000 needed to block the increases.

Lee asked the council to step in.

“You can see that the public doesn’t want this,” she said.

Nevertheless, the council approved the rate increases shortly before midnight and approved the entire budget early Wednesday morning. The budget will undergo one more procedural vote during the City Council’s next regularly scheduled meeting September 10.

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.
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