The Long Beach City Council voted Tuesday to preliminarily adopt the city’s $3.2 billion budget, including some last-minute tweaks that will give a boost to city services like libraries, legal defense funding for immigrants facing deportation and provide nearly $6 million in employee-retention bonuses.
Long Beach’s budget was originally projected to have a $36 million deficit this year but it’s been propped up by COVID-19 relief dollars from the state and federal government and a rebounding local economy, which allowed this year’s budget to be balanced.
Council members will have to vote again next week to formally adopt the budget for the fiscal year that starts in October, but after hours of debating last-minute modifications Wednesday, they appear set to do that.
This year’s budget includes a five-year infrastructure spending plan that will require the city to issue bonds to pay for $150 million of the roughly half-billion-dollar project, which also includes significant allocations of state and local tax revenue.
Tuesday’s discussions largely focused on recommendations from the council’s Budget Oversight Committee, which unveiled its list of requests hours before the council meeting began.
They included additional funding to bolster the city’s language access program that provides translation and other services for non-English speaking members of the community and a $900,000 allocation to fund enforcement of the recently approved health care worker minimum wage increase, which the council adopted in August.
Two of the biggest last-minute allocations were for library services and city employee pay, topics that have brought out people in droves to demand that the council provide more funding. The council voted to add $400,000 for library materials in addition to what had already been proposed and another $1.2 million to expand library hours.
One million of that would be structural funding, but it’s unclear where that money will come from. The budget originally called for about $8.3 million in library salaries.
City Manager Tom Modica advised the council earlier in the meeting that committing to ongoing spending might hurt the bonds the city intends to issue to fix roads and other public assets.
“We’re in the middle of projecting a structural deficit next year of $25.6 million that’s probably larger than that,” Modica said, noting that contracts for police, fire and non-sworn city employees would be renegotiated in the coming year.
The end of federal COVID-19 recovery act funds, which are helping cover multiple initiatives in this budget, and anticipated costs for oil production abandonment could make next year’s budget process tough, Modica said.
The $5.8 million in employee retention funds were added in response to an outpouring of city employees who called for a cost-of-living increase in this year’s budget. The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), which represents over 2,800 city employees, has pushed repeatedly at City Council meetings for the bonuses, saying members are having trouble making ends meet.
It’s not clear how the money would be distributed, but it will be dolled out sometime after Oct. 1.
“I think that is a good faith effort to show that we care and we’re listening to our city employees,” said Councilmember Al Austin, who chairs the Budget Oversight Committee.
Council members also directed additional funding toward the Long Beach Justice Fund ($300,000), which raises the total to $1.1 million for legal defense services for residents facing deportation.
There are still some unanswered questions after Tuesday night’s vote, like how and when the city’s new park ambassador program will be rolled out to replace the existing park ranger program, something that a local theme park operator objected to after multiple break-ins at their El Dorado Park facility.
The council could also still opt to reduce tax rates on cannabis operators in the city, something that business owners have pushed for in recent months.
The budget adopted Tuesday projects that about $12 million will be generated by the additional taxes paid by cannabis retailers and other operators but Mayor Robert Garcia said Tuesday that a full discussion on cannabis taxes could be headed to the council in the coming weeks.