The recently opened Michelle Obama Library was a highlight for the Long Beach Library System in the past fiscal year. Photo Asia Morris
The ongoing department budget presentation process soldiered on Tuesday night as Long Beach’s library, health and human services and disaster preparedness departments touted their accomplishments in the past year and forecasted their challenges going forward.
The three departments comprise about $150 million of the city’s $2.6 billion budget. They provide services like after school study centers for students in the city, mobile STD testing as well as 9-1-1 services, and all three had accomplishments to wield during their presentations to the Long Beach City Council.
Long Beach Public Library Director Glenda Williams noted the system’s national recognition from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the over 1.2 million visits to Long Beach libraries and the community’s heavy engagement with the recently opened Michelle Obama Library.
Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Communications Director Reggie Harrison said the department, which received over 700,000 calls for service last year, averaged an answer time that was within the industry standard of 10 seconds and completed multiple measures that will help the city respond to a number of crises.
Long Beach Department of Public Health Director Kelly Colopy pointed to the city’s biannual homeless count, which saw a 21 percent reduction this year, and $87 million in non-city funding that the department was able to bring into its coffers.
Those efforts have come despite a funding model that has the city pouring about 70 percent of its discretionary budget to public safety. Colopy laid out the case for more funding to be funneled to the health and human services department, citing statistics that suggest that spending on early childhood development and preventative programs lead to future cost savings, adding that until those investments are made the city would remain reactive, rather than proactive.
“When children do well in early life and are successful in school and early employment they are far less likely to commit crimes or to become homeless as adults,” Colopy said. “As you consider definitions of public safety, please remember that prevention strategies are essential to the success of Long Beach.”
Williams said the library system faces a number of challenges in the coming years including employee turnover—something that’s averaging about 28 percent currently—and aging buildings that have led to leaky roofs that have further damaged the city’s infrastructure and in some cases led to books needing to be thrown out.
Much of the library’s programming budget is not even provided by the city’s budgeting process, instead, the library system has had to rely on additional funding collected through fines from JetBlue’s late night flights which are donated to the Long Beach Public Library Foundation and then dispersed to the library system.
While this year’s budget includes continued Sunday hours at four libraries throughout the city (Bay Shore, Burnett, Michelle Obama, El Dorado) the system faces the prospect of having to do with even less in the coming years as the city faces projected deficits that will require further cuts to its departments.
Vice Mayor Rex Richardson proposed the council take a more measured approach to cuts that are likely on the horizon by making more proportional reductions, rather than large uniform cuts that could disproportionately affect city departments with smaller budgets.
“As we move forward we must make sure that we’re defending, make sure that we’re justifying the dollars we spend,” Richardson said. “We have to keep a close eye on it. But we have to make sure that as we move forward we do learn lessons from the past and we are proportional in how we make our budget adjustments. It protects departments like libraries and parks and health departments because a $100,000 cut may mean something small in a larger department but it could eliminate an entire program in the health department.”
Sixth District Councilman Dee Andrews, whose off-the-cuff remarks are usually peppered with levity and candor, praised the departments for the work they were able to do under tight budgetary circumstances, and then remarked what some felt was the proverbial elephant in the room.
“Everything you guys do, you raise money,” Andrews said. “We don’t give you guys any money, you have to raise money. If we start giving you money there’s no telling what you guys will start doing.”
If budgeting was increased for the three departments the directors outlined exactly what could be done, and what needs to be done.
The library system could make its Sunday hours of operation a structural part of its annual budget rather than an item that’s perpetually on the chopping block. It could hire more staff that could allow the library system to expand to seven days a week from its current five-day work week.
The health department could continue its work to reduce the city’s homeless population, continue the operation of the city’s recently installed office of equity and be less reliant on a federal grant system that has become somewhat unpredictable under the current administration. It could hire a public information officer to do outreach work instead of relying on current employees to perform the job on overtime hours.
The city’s disaster preparedness team could hire more dispatchers to free up employees that are currently being cross-trained, often on overtime, update the city’s 9-1-1 system to include a text option for those unable to call for emergencies and help low-income neighborhoods better prepare for their response capabilities in a time of disaster.
The public, which was on hand at McBride High School in East Long Beach, for a special edition of the weekly city council meeting, largely agreed that these services need more funding. Health, education and the city’s ability to respond when things go wrong are arguably as important as the police and fire budgets but get a sliver of the funding from the city’s general fund.
The accomplishments are wide, but those too could get slimmer as the city heads into more meager budgets projected in the coming years. As Councilman Andrews said, if the city starts giving them money, there’s no telling what what these departments could do.