While Long Beach officials said last week that there would be no service reductions in this year’s budget, filling vacant positions could be a challenge for the city’s public safety departments, with the Long Beach Police Department at risk of having one out of four positions unfilled within the year, officials told the City Council Tuesday.
The Long Beach Police Department and Long Beach Fire Department presented their budget proposals to the City Council Tuesday night, with both chiefs of those departments saying that staffing levels were a concern going into 2024.
LBPD Chief Wally Hebeish said his department currently has about 14.5% of its sworn positions vacant, and if it can’t retain its current officers long enough for new recruits to graduate from academies, the department could soon be in a position where one out of every four sworn officer positions is vacant.
“Based on our current projections, if we can’t retain officers, we could reach 24% within the next six months,” Hebeish told the council Tuesday night.
Part of the problem stems from the large number of officers who are eligible for retirement (130) and from what Hebeish called a “historic” challenge in recruiting new officers and keeping existing ones due to a downturn in interest in being a police officer. Out of those 130 officers, he said 84 had served more than 25 years.
The LBPD had already instituted mandatory overtime for all sworn positions earlier this year, which required all positions to work at least one additional shift per month to help with the shortage of officers.
Hebeish is proposing a pilot program in the coming year where officers working additional shifts on nights and weekends and those forced into duty because of their seniority would be paid double overtime rates.
In an attempt to stave off some of the looming retirements, Hebeish said that for officers who stay an additional one to two years to help provide the department time to find their replacements, the department would help offset their health care costs for up to 36 months.
“I recognize that money cannot fix all of our challenges,” Hebeish said, adding that he believed the move would help reduce the number of immediate retirements.
The new LBPD contract approved by the City Council in October included incentives for officers to recruit new hires and transfers as well as additional pay for existing members of the force to stay with the department longer.
This year’s proposed budget also includes nearly $1 million to help pay for the child care needs of new and early career officers who live in the city.
The city’s Fire Department is also facing staffing challenges, but LBFD Chief Dennis Buchanan said that the department has its largest academy class ever (48) this year, which could help reinforce the ranks of his department, which also has a lot of retirement-eligible employees.
The proposed budget would allocate $1.4 million to the Fire Department to help with staffing and ensure that Engine 17 in East Long Beach would remain in service going forward, however, the engine is staffed with overtime hours.
The department’s practice of “force hiring” employees, meaning they are required to work during what would have been scheduled time off, was a big point of concern in a consultant report partially released by the city last year that detailed the exhaustion that fire personnel are experiencing due to vacancies brought about by injuries and burnout.
One way to ease the burden on the department would be to amend a requirement that ambulances must stay with a patient at a hospital until they’re admitted—paramedics have reported being required to wait hours at hospitals due to bed shortages, leaving fewer people available in the field.
There is hope that could change, with a state bill working its way through Sacramento, but Buchanan said Tuesday that he’s met with hospital officials in the city to encourage them to hire more emergency room personnel to help process patients faster and allow fire personnel to get back into the field faster.
Some of the department’s challenges will be much more expensive to fix than adding personnel. Buchanan said that there are 12 stations in the city that are over 60 years old and could need to be upgraded or replaced.
The proposed budget could see the city issue $20 million in bonds to help build the new Fire Station 9 near the Los Cerritos Neighborhood. The City Council approved the plans for the rebuild in January, but at the time, the city had not said how it would pay for the new station.
In anticipation of the 2028 Olympics, the department is also looking at replacing all 25 of the city’s lifeguard towers, which Buchanan said are at the end of their life cycle. The department will also have to spend $4.1 million over the next 10 years to upgrade the breathing apparatus equipment its personnel needs to safely fight fires.
Buchanan said the department is also looking to transition to all-electric apparatus and trucks in the future.
The presentation Tuesday was the first of a series of departmental budget discussions that are expected to run through August before the council adopts the budget in September. It has until Sept. 12 to approve the budget.
To see a list of upcoming community meetings about the budget, click here.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Chief Wally Hebeish’s last name.