A screenshot of the Long Beach Budget Challenge.
While city leaders worked toward approving the Fiscal Year 2016 budget, they offered the community a chance to taste the budgeting process with the Long Beach Budget Challenge, an interactive online simulation that put the balancing act in the hands of their constituents.
The first survey of its kind was reviewed last night as the budget season came to a close, with the results reflecting an older, more affluent resident group’s desired city budget.
The online simulation also included a budget survey that allowed residents to rank city services from very important to not at all important. The survey garnered over 600 responses as of September 14, with nearly 60 percent of submissions originating form the Third, Fourth and Fifth districts and almost 70 percent of participants being over the age of 50.
Assistant to the City Manager Geoff Hall took note of this fact, pointing out that many of the results could’ve been skewed based on the top heavy participation of older residents. In the budget priority survey, maintaining public buildings and senior centers and public safety services outweighed others, like investing in the future of the city and low-cost programs for youths.
Hall said those results, particularly the desire to infuse money into the upkeep of Rancho Los Alamitos, which dominated the write-in comment section of the survey, could be attributed to the sample population. He also noted that the results were not indicative of the population as a whole.
“While we did have participation from residents in each council district, the majority of respondents were located in districts three, four and five,” Hall said. “As far as age is concerned, two-thirds of the respondents were aged 50 years or older.”
The simulator allowed for residents to create a budget of their own, combing through each city department and decided to stick with the status quo (the proposed budget), or to cut or increase funding by two percent or five percent. It also provided the option to increase sales tax, utility users tax and to implement a parcel tax to help offset expenditures by increasing city revenues.
For each option, the ramifications were listed. For instance, cutting the Long Beach Police Department budget by five percent would eliminate upwards of 30 sworn positions and reduce training and overtime budget, but create a roughly $9 million surplus. Investing five percent more would increase the force by 47 sworn positions, decrease 911 response times and strengthen specialized patrol units (mental health, homeless issues) but come with a price tag of about $7 million.
“It’s worth noting that the budget challenge was designed to serve as an educational tool, as well as a means for gathering public input,” Hall said. “Participants are exposed to the complexities of balancing their interests with available budget resources. It requires a fair amount of effort to complete and the choices can be difficult for some.”
Only 120 of the 200 people who started the budget challenge actually finished it.
There was little consensus in the results of the challenge. The same percentage of people that felt library funding should be decreased by two percent also felt that funding to libraries should be increased by two percent. The funding option to increase by two percent and would open three branches on Sundays was adopted by the city council along with several other proposals presented by Mayor Robert Garcia.
Three quarters of the respondents felt that funding to elected and appointed officials should be decreased, with none choosing the five percent increase option.
Nearly 80 percent felt that the funding for the city manager and economic development offices needed to be reduced, a measure that would decrease the city’s ability to advertise, market and impeded economic development efforts.
Nearly 39 percent of people who filled out the challenge felt that disaster training and preparedness should be reduced by some measure. Thirty four percent thought that the public works budget should be increased, which would allow for better street maintenance, while the identical number of participants thought that the status quo was appropriate.
Both responses are notable, considering the city’s recent discussion of disaster preparedness infrastructure, which was highlighted by the Southern California Edison power outages and recent presentation by Public Works Director Ara Maloyan. His presentation showed the city’s streets were in need of a $300 million makeover over the next decade to keep them from falling into disrepair.
In order to balance their budgets, some 70 percent of participants opted to increase revenues in order to offset expenditures or to create a budget surplus. That so many people would consider raising taxes to balance the budget was surprising to Fifth District Councilwoman Stacy Mungo who said she would continue to fight against raising hikes. She suggested that future iterations of the budget challenge more clearly define the consequences that have been historically associated with raising taxes.
“I’d like to see in the future that when someone marks a box that says 'increase sales tax revenue' there could maybe be some comments that say ‘it shows that when sales tax amounts increase, sales change,'” Mungo said. “It’s never just straight comparison. There are equilibriums that really come into play.”
The survey and budget simulator were admittedly new and had some existing kinks that need to be worked out, but overall the council felt that it was a useful tool in helping shape the actual budget.
Eighth District Councilman Al Austin said it was nice to provide uniformity on a citywide scale to a practice that he has implemented in his community budget meetings for years, while Third District Councilwoman Suzie Price, a huge fan of data, said the results provided a glimpse of what her constituents were concerned about.
“I find survey data to be very useful,” Price said. “Does it answer all questions? Absolutely not. But it does provide me insight to what the majority of my residents who are engaged are thinking and what their priorities are.”