A routine year-end budget adjustment turned contentious Tuesday as Long Beach City Council members clashed over a proposal to add multiple new positions to Mayor Rex Richardson’s staff, a move that could add nearly $1 million for new politically appointed jobs.

The budget adjustments were recommended after the city took in higher levels of revenue for the 2022 fiscal year, which ended in September, allowing it to reallocate about $11 million in American Rescue Plan Act money and other oil-based revenues to fund city projects and programs.

While those programs were previously approved unanimously by the full council during the last two budget cycles, a Jan. 30 letter from Richardson asked the council to approve the addition of six new positions in his office and the administration bureau to support City Council offices.

Two of the positions would be new “deputy mayor” roles to head up housing and economic development on behalf of Richardson’s office.

“We can’t claim to focus on these issues if we don’t invest in the capacity to take these challenges head-on,” Richardson said Tuesday.

The mayor’s office and its budget have grown over the years. Mayor Robert Garcia’s last full year in office included a budget of $1.3 million with eight full-time employees, while Richardson’s request would increase the mayor’s team to 12 full-time employees and push the budget to over $2 million.

Tuesday’s vote could add as many as 16 new positions across the mayor’s office, the city clerk’s office and the legislative department, where each council office could hire a new employee.

New Councilmember Joni Ricks-Oddie suggested each district get funding for a new assistant, but the early $1.2 million in funding allocated Tuesday only covers about half a year of wages and benefits. The city will also have to find the money to continue those positions in future budgets, potentially by cutting other programs and projects.

The position with the city clerk’s office would help the city’s elected officials monitor new Levine Act regulations, which require council members and other elected officials to recuse themselves from votes or give money back if they received $250 or more from a person with business before the council or other boards.

A majority of the council expressed support for the mayor’s request, but others said it was more appropriate for this request to go to the council’s committees to be deliberated on and to give the public an opportunity to weigh in.

“If we’re going to add staff, let’s add them to Public Works where we’re pushing those projects right now,” said Councilmember Daryl Supernaw, who’s well-known for employing a lean council staff and said he didn’t need any new employees.

Councilmember Al Austin said the rest of the council was “giving away its authority” to govern the city by allowing the expansion of the mayor’s staff. The city’s charter grants the council and the city manager the most power, with the mayor being a “weak mayor” position, who has no vote on policy and no authority to hire or fire employees outside of political appointments on their staff.

“I’ve sat through dozens of hours of budget hearings and never once has someone said, ‘We need a bigger budget for the mayor’s office,’ or even the City Council,” Austin said.

Austin most recently served as head of the council’s Budget Oversight Committee and pointed to concerns about how the city would pay for the new positions going forward.

The council voted 6-3 to approve the positions Tuesday night, which has funding for the rest of this year, but after that, it could require cuts from other areas of the city’s budget to sustain the new positions, City Manager Tom Modica said.

City budget officials have projected a $43 million deficit for the coming year, something they believe will shrink like last year’s deficit did over time. But Modica said the next fiscal year, starting in Oct. 2024, is when the city would likely have to start making cuts.

Public commenters were nearly unanimous in opposing the expansion of the mayor’s staff, calling it an unnecessary move that would add another layer of bureaucracy between the public and the people they elected to represent them.

Parastou Tehrani said the council needed to live within its means and pointed to the bill inserts sent to the city’s utility customers advising them to turn their thermostats down, wash their clothes in cold water and bundle up with their families to save money during the recent spike in the cost of natural gas.

“That’s what I’m asking you guys to do,” Tehrani said.

Others challenged the fact that no job descriptions have been posted for the proposed positions and that at least some of the positions could pay six figures without the public knowing what exactly they would be doing.

“Since I recently closed my business, I might apply for the position,” said Lisa Ramelow, who used to operate the La Strada restaurant in Belmont Shore. “I might qualify since there isn’t a description.”

Richardson and other members supporting their offices’ expansion defended the move, saying that constituent services have suffered because of a lack of funding to hire more people or to retain people once they are hired.

While it’s unclear what the new deputy mayors will do or what kind of authority they will have, Richardson said that he campaigned on housing and building up the city’s economy. This is how he intends to deliver on his campaign promises.

“I’m a housing and jobs mayor, that’s what I care about,” Richardson said. “Those are the biggest challenges we’ll be facing.”

Recent trends in sales tax, other revenue could shrink Long Beach’s $43M budget deficit

Increased sales tax, fossil fuel revenue could give Long Beach funding for more projects

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