For the past 11 days, residents have shown up to middle schools, libraries and parks to take part in a series of community budget meetings hosted by Long Beach, which says it wants to hear residents’ priorities before crafting this year’s budget.
Still, skeptics are unsure if community members’ input will truly be taken into account.
Long Beach historically had not hosted community meetings before the annual budget was crafted. It tried to start that process last January, but that effort was ultimately derailed by an increase in COVID-19 cases that drove the meetings to a virtual setting and saw the city cut the number of meetings it hosted in half.
This year, the city’s planned meetings have fared better, and it has hosted three in-person sessions so far.
The format of all of the meetings has been the same: After a short presentation where city management and budget officials give an overview of the city’s financial situation, which includes a budget deficit that was once thought to be $43 million but could be smaller, the interactive portion—when community members weigh in—begins.
Boards in the meeting spaces are categorized into different city services based on the area of policy—education, climate or public safety, for example—and attendees can “vote” on what their priorities are by placing a sticker next to what they think is important, or add to the sections by using a sticky note for things they think should be funded in the upcoming budget.
Nick Russo, a Downtown resident and president of operations at Pedal Movement, a local business that operates the city’s bike-share program and promotes universal bicycle access, said he appreciates the meetings because, when he first moved to the city, he wasn’t able to provide feedback as directly as he can this year.
Russo’s priorities include creating more protected bike lanes, as well as other changes to make the city safer and easier to navigate without a car.
“I’d like to see a ban on right turns on red, better standards for construction projects that consider how they’ll affect pedestrians, and I’d like to see public transportation made free,” Russo said.
Some of the meetings’ categories for possible future investment include staples of municipal government: making sure the city is safe by bolstering police and fire services, keeping city parks in good repair and fixing city streets—the last of which is a goal the city recently moved to address, as it approved $150 million in bonds to help pay for a massive backlog of repairs.
But there is also room for suggestions from the public.
Shara Dockett said her focus is on education. She said that she’d like the city to fund a sorority house that would offer supportive services to women attending college in the area.
Dockett said the sorority could provide things like health care services, child care and other support to help ensure women can graduate from college.
Karen Reside, president of the Long Beach Grey Panthers, which advocates for senior needs, said the city should invest in an office of aging that would work directly with seniors to help them stay housed and healthy.
Reside said there should be more space for senior centers, calling on the city to create one for every 50,000 residents—the city currently only has one—and that there should be more qualified staff who understand the needs of older adults.
“The problem with older adults is that the city doesn’t have a lot of staff with gerontology degrees or experience,” Reside said.
City officials say that the community input received through these meetings, as well as in an online survey, will be compiled and ranked for the City Council and budget officials to consider while putting together this year’s document.
The city’s budget is expected to be released to the public in August, and the council must approve it before the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1.
Community organizers are unsure how much the city will incorporate the community’s priorities into the actual budget document, but they’re still encouraging residents to take part in the process.
Jamilet Ochoa, a senior organizer with Long Beach Immigrant Rights Coalition, was critical of the meetings’ structure. Yes, the city did provide a translator for people who speak Spanish, Khmer or Tagalog, but the signs where residents are supposed to vote on their priorities are all in English.
That requires people to stay nearby the translator or be unable to read the poster boards.
“City documents, forms and meetings available in multiple languages” is one of the options listed on a board, but it is written in English.
Ochoa said the boards also lack issues that primarily impact vulnerable communities, like providing legal representation for undocumented residents or the use of facial recognition technology, the latter of which two city commissions have said the city should ban.
Under “public safety,” five of the 10 categories include things that could be construed to be support for more spending on police, something organizers have fought against for years. Things like “police patrol and response” and “prevention programs to address violence before it happens” are among the selections.
Ochoa said that for some community members, crime prevention means providing affordable housing and rental assistance, not more police.
“It doesn’t feel like the voices of everyone are being captured,” Ochoa said. “How can we vote on items that are not on here?”
Melissa Morgan, a communications director for Long Beach Forward, which is a part of a coalition of community groups that issue the “People’s Budget” every year, said that community members are distrustful of the city over previous failed attempts to have their voices heard, and the proof that the city is listening will lie in how it incorporates community input this time around.
“Progress really takes a long time when we’re talking about social justice issues,” Morgan said, adding that the victories the coalition didn’t see in last year’s budget will fuel how it compiles its demands this year.
The City Council is expected to be briefed in the coming months on the final year-end performance of last year’s budget and get a better look at how that will affect the projected deficit, according to city officials.
The next in-person community budget meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 31, at the Michelle Obama Library in North Long Beach at 6 p.m. A final virtual meeting is scheduled for Feb. 6 at 6 p.m. The online budget survey closes Feb. 7 at 5 p.m.