Long Beach residents told city officials Tuesday night that they wanted more investment in city services like libraries, parks, mental health services, a larger response to a growing homelessness crisis and funding for affordable housing.

The virtual meeting was the first of two this week where Long Beach management and city department heads will listen to the public’s priorities for the upcoming budget that is set to be released in July. This year is the first year that the city has taken public input before the document is released. It’s generally adopted with limited changes after being revealed.

“I hope to retire and die in this city, but there are moments where I want to leave it because I feel we’re not handling the homelessness in a way that we should be,” said Kay Gatlin, who said she recently became a homeowner in the city.

The meeting, which lasted just under two hours, was one way the city is trying to gauge residents’ priorities heading into what could be a difficult budget season.

Cuts were avoided last year when a massive influx of state and federal COVID-19 aid allowed the city to replenish its depleted reserves, operate coronavirus testing sites, and provide monetary help to renters and businesses. However, that kind of a lifeline is not expected this year.

The hole in the budget that must be adopted by September was originally projected to be as large as $36 million, but a revision is expected to make that deficit smaller in the coming months.

City Manager Tom Modica said that the budget is really an exercise in trying to determine which priority is more important than the other, but he’s hopeful that the economy has rebounded to a point where the city won’t have to make too many cuts for the next fiscal year, which starts in October.

Veronica Garcia Davalos, the new executive director of the Long Beach Public Library Foundation, which raises money for the city’s 12 libraries, said that programs and goals promoted by the city—such as early education, investing in youth and being more digitally inclusive—require more funding for the city’s library system.

“We’re concerned that the ability to promote equity is being hurt by cuts to the structural budget,” Garcia Davalos said, adding that the city should join Los Angeles and other municipalities in permanently eliminating overdue book fees to remove another barrier to learning.

Libraries have one of the smaller departmental budgets getting just $15.3 million in funding out of the city’s $634 million general fund in last year’s budget cycle.

For years, community groups have demanded that the city reduce funding to the Long Beach Police Department, which received about $285 million this year, or roughly half of the city’s entire general fund. Some residents have called for funding to go into more neighborhood services instead, and that continued Tuesday.

“I’m glad we’re having these sessions with the community, but I hope to see a lot of these requests reflected in the proposed budget that the city manager puts out,” said Joanna Diaz, who said the police department has become too militarized.

The City Council pushed back on any discussion of police cuts in August, saying that reducing funding by any amount would be “irresponsible.”

Other attendees said that there needed to be more funding for police and other public safety agencies to ensure that when residents call for help they’re able to respond in an appropriate amount of time.

Jeff Hoffman said that maybe the city was trying to do too much with its financial resources and that maybe it should do less.

“I’m really focused on the basics, public safety, infrastructure, streets, etcetera,” Hoffman said. “The rest I think is important, but if we look at a budget that might have less money available, I would focus on the basics and maybe some of the gravy we’re going to have to put aside for a while.”

A second virtual meeting is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 27 at 5:30 p.m. A link to register to attend can be found here. A community budget survey that is open through Jan. 28 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.