In the first of several budget hearings, the City Council on Tuesday heard plans from the city’s fire, parks and recreation, and health departments about how they’re going to help close a $30 million hole in Long Beach’s budget.

All of them are taking cuts or could be left with a hefty tab from the ongoing cost of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Long Beach Fire Department has proposed cutting a portion of its seasonal lifeguard detail that could see up to about seven fewer lifeguards on city beaches at any given time. City parks could see less staff to lock up park restrooms, decreased maintenance of some parks and could see increased fees for visitors.

The health department, largely dependent on grant funding and other non-city revenue, could be left with a bill from the pandemic that has already run up a tab of $69 million. Grants have covered about $49 million of that cost, but any expenditures not eligible for grant funding could be charged to the department, officials warned.

Council members took turns addressing what they saw as potential issues, as well as proposing potential solutions.

Councilwoman Stacy Mungo, who represents the area of the city that includes El Dorado Park, said she wanted to explore how city residents could be spared from any increased fees. She said large parties at parks, often held by people who aren’t city residents, contribute to cleanup and administrative costs. She asked if a volunteer program could help offset some of the proposed fee increases on city parks.

“My goal would be that Long beach taxpayers don’t have to pay more to get into their park,” Mungo said.

The proposed 10% cut to the city’s lifeguard force worried Councilwoman Suzie Price. Price represents the city’s southeastern flank that includes Naples and Belmont Shore. She said that the proposal was “disappointing” and asked that the cuts be reconsidered.

Throughout the night, commenters from the public consistently came back with their own solution for the budget crunch. They repeatedly said cuts to vital services like parks, public health and fire response could be avoided by shifting funds away from the Long Beach Police Department.

The LBPD, the largest recipient of general fund dollars, is slated to see a reduction of just over $10 million. It’s $260 million budget was originally scheduled to be discussed Tuesday but was pulled from the agenda.

Long-term cuts for LBFD

The fire department also stands to lose more structural funding in the coming years as the city’s three-year outlook projects about $75 million in deficits that must be reconciled. That’s in addition to the damage wrought on the city’s finances by the coronavirus, a toll that wont fully be calculated until later this year, according to city officials.

A $200,000 study is expected to help city officials identify possible cuts for the department, but the will of the council has been to preserve public safety funding. The extent of future cuts to the department is not yet know, officials said.

LBFD Chief Xavier Espino said that staffing is expected to remain consistent with anticipated academies and retirements balancing out, but he said losing any parts of the department’s networks will likely impact response times, something the LBFD has worked to reduce in recent years.

“This becomes increasingly difficult with budget cuts,” Espino said.

While East Long Beach’s Engine 17, which was restored through grant funding last year, could be on the chopping block next September, the city could look to raising the fire facilities impact fee. The fee, which is charged to new developments to offset impacts on existing fire facilities, is used to acquire property for fire facilities, construct new buildings and purchasing equipment and vehicles for the department.

Until recently, the fee raised about $100,000 annually, but in the 2019 fiscal year, the fees generated over $800,000. On Tuesday, the council asked staff to revisit the ordinance that was adopted in 2007 to see if other ways of generating funds could be identified, including a possible parcel tax or partnership with developers as seen in other cities.

The council also voted Tuesday to approve the purchase of a property in North Long Beach that could serve as the new permanent home of Fire Station 9. The station had been displaced by ongoing mold issues, but the $2.3 million purchase approved Tuesday could see a new station constructed in just over two years as soon as funding for the project is identified.

Building the new station has been projected to cost between $13 million and $20 million.

The City Council will continue its departmental budget hearings Aug. 18 when its scheduled to hear presentations from the city’s public works, library and police departments.

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