Long Beach City Departments Face Deep Cuts Amid $17.2 Million Deficit
Proposed Fiscal Year 2013 Budget Slashes Public Safety, Other Positions
By Sean Belk - Staff Writer
August 14, 2012 – Challenged with balancing a $17.2 million deficit next fiscal year, Long Beach city officials released a proposed budget this month that would enact harsh cutbacks to city services and put more than 150 positions on the chopping block.
The city has realized savings after reaching pension reform last year, most substantially with police and fire department unions, which reduced the shortfall by about $6 million. But city officials anticipate structural deficits for at least the next three fiscal years due to projected weak revenue, rising labor-related expenses and other costs.
The budget calls for cuts in fiscal year 2013, which begins October 1, through a “proportionate share” system, which ensures that police and fire departments receive a majority, or 68 percent, of general fund resources, while preserving funding for other core city departments.
Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster discusses the proposed city budget for FY 2013
The city’s police department, however, which makes up 49 percent of the general fund, is expected to take an $8.7 million hit, which is the brunt of the cuts next fiscal year. The proposed budget calls for slashing 40 sworn police officer positions through attrition, while laying-off possibly up to 32 civilian support officers.
Other reductions to the police department include reducing investigations and gang field units, analytical capabilities and administrative support. Also on the table is consolidating the south and west divisions into one new central division, which would relocate officers and ensure more savings by allowing the department to terminate property leases.
After the fire department was able to retain four-person crews through rearranging operations and using one-time oil revenue in the current fiscal year, in order to maintain this $3.6 million service, the department may now have to eliminate an unspecified fire engine and implement an “alternative paramedic service model,” among other cost-cutting measures, according to the proposed budget. The department may also have to drop three sworn firefighter positions through attrition.
Major changes to other city departments include possibly contracting out the public works department’s tree trimming services and turning six branch libraries into “self-service” facilities. In addition, the parks, recreation and marine department may have to: reduce management and administrative staffing; increase fees; consolidate operations; and reduce support for specialized programs and facilities.
Citing a “new normal” that cities may have to endure expenses outpacing revenue for some time, Mayor Bob Foster presented a series of budget recommendations, stating “we need to embrace the new reality and change the way we conduct the public’s business.”
After applauding recent pension reform agreements with police and fire unions, Foster took a hardline with the city’s largest employee labor union, the International Association of Machinists (IAM), threatening to put pension reform to voters if the union doesn’t agree to contract changes. He said IAM hasn’t budged for nearly two years on pension reform, yet has received 7 percent salary increases.
“Bargain hard, but the old, ‘I give this and you give me that’ will not work anymore,” he said in a prepared statement. “. . . Each year of delay costs our residents $12 million in services and much more in future unfunded costs. If IAM continues to be intractable, I will place a pension measure on the ballot. It is not my preferred path, but reform is a necessary outcome and I am left with no other option.”
Some of the mayor’s major recommendations for the budget include: studying whether to start outsourcing custodial services, street sweeping, technology services and refuse hauling; analyze the costs and benefits of merging public works, oil and gas and water departments; look into compensation changes and examine proportionate share.
Foster also recommended that the city embark on a comprehensive “services review” of police and fire departments. He said a report on city management shows Long Beach has more sworn officers and more overall employees per 1,000 residents than comparable cities. “If an examination determines more resources should be applied to our police, then we must consider what we eliminate to re-allocate those resources.”
Year-to-date crime statistics, as of June, show that part 1 crimes, considered the highest offenses of violence and property theft, have increased 12.8 percent over last year. But since crime hit a 40-year low in 2010, the mayor stressed any increases are already starting from a “very low base.”
In an interview with the Business Journal, Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell said the department’s main goal is to maintain its core mission of providing emergency response and will continue to use resources more efficiently to counter any rise in crime. “These are increases we’ve taken very seriously and we’re constantly looking at redeploying our resources to be able to spot trends, patterns or clusters of crime and be able to deal with them with the resources we have as expeditiously as we can,” he said.
While the proposed budget provides for a police academy of 40 recruits to begin the process to stabilizing staffing levels, McDonnell said it typically takes two years of recruiting, selecting and training from the time the department is authorized to start hiring for new sworn officers to make it into the force. “We’re hoping as we move forward, whether it’s two, three or four years, that at some point we’ll be able to start rebuilding the department,” he said.
Steve James, president of the Long Beach Police Officer’s Association, said the city’s police force has shrunk by some 200 officers over the past four to five years, but he said next fiscal year’s round of reductions may be as far as the city can go without creating inadequate police services, adding that the more officers and services are cut, the more crime may increase. “The biggest problem I see is we have not yet established our basement level of police officers, and it appears maybe in this budget we have because they’re talking about a police academy,” he said.
While the mayor, during the August 7 city council meeting, gave a presentation, warning of the dangers of using one-time oil revenues for ongoing expenditures, James said using oil revenue for such critical needs as the gang unit could help reduce crime until “modest” increases in revenue are realized in the future.
“The one-time revenue could buy us some time for those modest increases to occur . . . and, if they don’t, what’s the worst case scenario?” he said. “Instead of cutting the gang field team this year, we cut it next year. But, by having it one extra year, maybe we’ve saved a couple lives, maybe we’ve put a couple gang members in jail and stopped several gang shootings . . . What’s the value to that?”
James added that the city’s budgeted $7 million in police overtime won’t be enough to cover overtime expenses next fiscal year, even as the department continues to “micro-manage” its overtime staffing.
Rex Pritchard, president of Long Beach Firefighters Local 372, said, while the mayor and city staff claim not to use oil money for staffing, there have been cases where that’s happened. He added that cutting the most positions from departments that have agreed to pension reform, while allowing others to grow in size, sends a “very poor message to all employees.”
Additionally, Pritchard said implementing a “one plus one” paramedic model, which has yet to be even authorized by the Los Angeles County Department of Health, would actually result in reduced paramedic services. “Eventually you’ll get two medics on scene, but it’s not going to be where they arrive on scene at the same time,” he said. “It’s just not true to say that it’s the same or better level of service.”
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