For the first time, Long Beach this year will host community budget meetings to hear residents’ priorities before releasing the city’s proposed annual budget, but the omicron variant has complicated the plan.

The original plan was for four in-person meetings at schools, parks or libraries across the city, but it’s been scaled back to two virtual ones. The pair of virtual meetings are scheduled for Jan. 25 and Jan. 27.

After the omicron variant began racing through the city during the holidays, Long Beach health officials issued a notice that all city meetings would be held virtually amid a host of public service changes to try to limit community transmission.

Long Beach has averaged 1,739 new COVID-19 cases per day since New Year’s Eve.

The swift surge in cases meant the finance department had to scramble to switch to the virtual format, said Grace Yoon, the city’s budget manager.

“Due to this limited timeframe, and in the city’s best effort to both stay on schedule and foster open conversations with community members regarding the fiscal year 2023 city budget, the number of community budget meetings needed to be adjusted to two meetings,” Yoon said in an email.

Yoon said the community will still be able to fill out an online budget survey that will be included in the feedback sent to the City Council before the release of the proposed budget, something that typically happens in July.

Long Beach is likely facing a particularly tough budget process this year as the city’s projected budget shortfall has been estimated as high as $36 million. In December, a member of the city’s finance department told the council that there is optimism that the shortfall could be smaller but did not commit to an amount.

Two of the biggest drivers possibly reducing that funding gap are anticipated sales tax and property tax revenue. However, there is concern that any gains could be offset by the result of a challenge to the city’s Measure M, which contributes a significant amount of money to the budget.

Measure M, a voter-approved ballot measure, codified the city’s practice of transferring excess money from the city’s water and sewer funds into the general fund. When residents filed lawsuits arguing they were being overcharged for utilities in order to boost the city’s general budget, an appellate court ruled against the city in December, saying Measure M was an unconstitutional tax. The next—and last—option for the city is appealing that ruling to the California Supreme Court.

Losing Measure M funds could shrink the general fund by $9 million annually. In the short term, it could also require the city to find a way to pay back already spent Measure M funds, which could range between $25 million and $42 million. The city could look to judgment bonds to pay back the spent revenue.

Revisions to the annual budget have been a contentious process in recent years, with community groups calling for less funding for the Long Beach Police Department and more for programs that support the community’s other needs like job development, investing in youth and violence prevention strategies that do not involve the police.

The LBPD’s $285 million budget approved by the council last year makes up nearly half of the entire general fund. Long Beach has billions of dollars in unfunded or underfunded departments that address everything from tree trimming to street repairs.

For people who want to weigh in: The Jan. 25 meeting is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. and the Jan. 27 meeting is scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m. Both meetings are expected to last for 90 minutes and will have translation services provided.

A link to the community budget survey can be found here. Information on how to register for and watch the meetings can be found here.

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