Long Beach City Hall. Photo by Thomas Cordova

The city is asking its employees to take 26 furlough days and plans to eliminate 136 jobs—including 34 sworn public safety positions that will be transitioned to civilian personnel—to help plug an estimated $30 million budget shortfall next fiscal year.

The coronavirus health pandemic and ensuing economic slowdown, followed by weeks of civil unrest after the death of George Floyd, have created an extraordinary fiscal challenge for the city, officials said.

“This budget process isn’t over,” Garcia said, noting that more changes could be on the way now that the budget heads into the next phase where the public and City Council can give their input.

The unemployment rate is nearly 30% in Long Beach, officials said, and several important sources of revenue have shriveled, including hotel bed tax, sales tax and oil revenue that pays for coveted projects along the coast. The city has spent roughly $100 million in its response to the coronavirus, some of which will be reimbursed by the state and federal government.

The overall $2.6 billion budget, released publicly Monday, calls for a range of cuts, both big and small, that will be debated by the City Council over the next five weeks:

  • After this fiscal year, the city will not spend or seek funding for the continuation of fire Engine 17 in East Long Beach, which was restored last year after much political wrangling
  • Reductions in landscaping and other maintenance in parks
  • Elimination of funding for community concerts in parks
  • Nine libraries would go from operating five days a week to three, with three libraries—Michelle Obama in North Long Beach, Mark Twain in Central Long Beach and the Billie Jean King library Downtown—operating seven days a week to serve as central hubs. Garcia, however, said Monday that he his working with staff to keep library hours to five days a week.

Overall the city will rely on $18 million in departmental cuts, $11 million from employee furloughs and some of its roughly $60 million in various reserve funds to plug next year’s budget hole.

“This is exactly why you build up reserves, which we have,” Garcia said.

The city also plans to spend nearly $3 million for racial equity initiatives, which were expected to be released separately Monday, in the wake of protests over police use of force and racial injustice.

Employee cuts

A total of 136 city positions could be impacted by the proposed budget cuts, but City Manager Tom Modica said Long Beach would do everything it can to avoid layoffs. Of those threatened positions, 77 are currently filled by workers, and 59 are vacant.

The specific layoffs, which would be determined by the city’s Civil Service Commission, could affect nearly every department—with the exception of the Health Department, which is largely funded through grants.

The city’s proposed furloughs for its workers could wind up as a 10% loss of pay for non-sworn employees; police officers and firefighters are sworn positions and would be exempt.

The furloughs would result in certain city services being closed one day every two weeks, with the exception of trash and street sweeping.

The employee furloughs must be negotiated with labor unions, which Modica said he hopes to resolve by Oct. 1, when the new fiscal year begins. If the furloughs aren’t approved, the city would be forced to cut another 106 positions, he said.

New fees and taxes

The city will also seek new revenue sources, some in the form of increased fees, though Modica and others said they are cognizant of the dramatic effect the coronavirus has had on residents and businesses.

The staff budget proposes to raise more money by:

  • Increasing the cannabis business license fee by 1% on both medicinal and recreational shops
  • Instituting a new fee of $25 per participant for youth sports teams, with a fee waiver for low-income families. The mayor said Monday he is opposed to this fee.
  • Increasing vehicle and parking pass lot fees by $1 for a daily pass at El Dorado Park, $5 for a yearly pass
  • A yet-to-be-determined increase in ambulance fees, which are typically covered by insurance
  • A towing fee increase between 8% to 17%
  • The city is also pursuing a 10.4% increase for gas utility customers
Public safety

Of the 136 positions proposed for elimination, 54 are sworn positions from the Long Beach Police Department and five are from the Long Beach Fire Department, though many of these spots would be back-filled by civilian workers at a lower cost than a sworn officer or firefighter.

Amid calls for defunding police, city staff is proposing to civilianize certain functions previously handled by sworn personnel: Lower-level crime, such as taking reports for property crime, would be handled by civilians; and the Fire Department’s HEART Team—which focuses on the homeless—would be staffed by nurses or social workers instead of firefighters.

The total proposed cut to the LBPD budget is $10.3 million, with much of that coming from the elimination of unfilled positions in the city’s bike and motorcycle traffic units. Other significant cuts propose transferring the department’s crossing guard program and converting 16 officer positions to civilian positions for non-violent 911 calls.

Staff said cuts in the department will affect the vice, narcotics and K-9 details, along with reductions in the Metro Blue Line contract and the elimination of its contract with Long Beach Unified.

The president of the Police Officers Association, the union that represents police, said the city has not undertaken any detailed studies to determine whether residents will be safer or services more efficient.

“Less patrol cars on the street means longer response times to emergency calls,” Rich Chambers, the president of POA, said in a statement. “It means less time for officers to do community policing and less time to build relationships in neighborhoods.”

He added that allowing unarmed civilians to respond to 911 calls “is a recipe for disaster.

“There is a role for civilians in policing, but placing unarmed civilians in harm’s way should not be one of them.”

Despite the cuts in funding, city officials said preserving the ranks of sworn officers is essential. The proposed budget would shift Measure A sales tax funds to avoid police layoffs if those jobs can’t be saved through retirements or vacancies.

If adopted, this would mark the first year the LBPD saw a budget cut since the 2015-2016 fiscal year. The roughly 5% cut from last year’s budget is smaller, however, than the cuts seen by the Los Angeles Police Department, which saw its roughly $1.8 billion operating budget slashed by $150 million last month.

The proposed budget does include $150,000 in continuing funding for the city’s Citizens Police Complaint Commission, which would initially be used to study how the body could be amended or strengthened.

Future years

The economic pain won’t end with the 2020-21 fiscal year, officials said. Projections for the next few years show about $76 million in cumulative shortfalls through 2024.

“This is not just a one-year problem,” Modica said.

While many of this year’s proposals are aimed at short-term fixes to weather the storm brought on by the pandemic, Long Beach does have long-term issues to deal with.

Capital improvement projects like the airport’s terminal improvement project and the Belmont Plaza Pool replacement project have yet to be defunded, but doing so has not been ruled out if the economic situation persists or worsens.

The budget was written assuming no second wave of COVID-19, and that the current wave will not be as severe by the start of next year. If the situation worsens, money allocated for capital projects or other funds, like the city’s roughly $59 million in reserves, could all be in play.

“We’re assuming this current wave is going to last much longer, throughout this year and into next year,” Garcia said. “We also expect that, and think that, if this COVID pandemic starts going into the spring the federal government and state will have to step in and provide more support for cities.”

Garcia said that the federal government’s response to the pandemic has led to states being “grossly underfunded.”

Federal legislation that originated in the House but has yet to be taken up by the Senate could distribute large amounts of federal aid to states and Garcia said the city is hopeful that could happen within this Congress, or in a new Congress early next year.

Other long-term projects like the city’s preparation for the 2028 Olympics could also be in peril. Long Beach was tapped to host a handful of events including marathon swimming, BMX racing, water polo and sailing, but large gaps in funding exist for the infrastructure projects it identified in 2018 as critical to hosting those events.

At present, a shortfall of about $96.5 million of both city and private funding exists for those eight projects, according to the proposed budget document.

City leaders were mindful to point out that these proposed cuts in services and funding for community programs did come after much deliberation. Other more drastic cuts like elimination of fire engines or paramedic units and reductions to animal care services, outright closures of some libraries and reductions in pothole, park and facilities’ maintenance were ultimately not proposed.

The City Council will hold its first budget hearing Tuesday during its regularly scheduled meeting, which begins at 5 p.m. That hearing will kick off at least a month of budget meetings by the council and its committees as it tries to fine-tune the budget before the expected Sept. 8 adoption date.

Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.