In Closed Session

Where will Long Beach's 2017-18 budget go?

We'll find out soon. Aside from a few more community meetings to help council members say they've brought the issue to the people, we're down to decision time.

The City Council could pass the Fiscal 2018 budget at its Sept. 5 meeting, and likely will pass some of the separate budgets, including the Harbor Department (Port of Long Beach), Water Department and maybe budgets for some of the other elected officials — city attorney, prosecutor and auditor.

But there's still plenty of horse-trading to do, and this council undoubtedly will go to the Sept. 12 deadline to pass the entire budget. 

For an early indication of what changes might take place, watch the Budget Oversight Committee meetings. Those three council members — Chair Stacy Mungo (Fifth), Vice Chair Suzie Price (Third) and member Al Austin (Eighth) will make recommendations on any fine-tuning they deem necessary.

Mungo in particular feels the need to make changes. She works in the Los Angeles budget department in real life, and has tried to take ownership of the budget process. (Why did you think Tuesday's council meeting was at McBride High School, in the Fifth District?)

Almost all of the debate is about the $461 million General Fund. That's out of a $2.2 billion total city budget — but most of that is in those separate Port and Water budgets, along with smaller restricted or enterprise (money-making) funds.

That's okay. The General Fund is what pays for most city services you care about — police, fire, parks, libraries, street repairs and the like. And while it may be less than a quarter of the total budget, $461 million is real money for most of us.

There are two exceptions, especially this year. The Capital Improvements Program (CIP) fund is particularly flush this year, thanks to the Measure A sales tax hike. Still, there will be some debate about priorities.

The other exception is the Tidelands Fund. Due to the drop in oil prices a couple of years ago (a lot of money is pumped out of those islands offshore), Tidelands is no longer the piggy bank it once was. Still, there's money there and that means a pot to pay for more services, and another pot for capital improvements.

The play within a play this budget and the coming year is how to pay for the Belmont Plaza Pool replacement. Now at the state Coastal Commission for final changes and approvals, the project still is an estimated $40 million short of being fully funded. Tidelands was the source for the $60 million or so already set aside.

With the approaching decision deadline comes the special interests (and that's not always a bad word) looking to get more money for their particular purpose. We saw the start of that last week when animal-loving activists stormed the City Council meeting, arguing for significantly more money in the Animal Services Bureau to further reduce and someday eliminate the need for euthanizing homeless dogs and cats.

There are other, more subtle campaigns as well. Friends of Long Beach's library system are faithful in their thanks for some Sunday hours, and their request for more money to better serve the public.

There always are those clamoring for more police officers, another fire engine and other public safety enhancements. And there's always the specific project folk, with the Belmont Pool advocates the prime example.

But perhaps the most important lobbying comes from the council members themselves. Mungo only needs to get one other vote, Price or Austin, to move recommendations out of the Budget Oversight Committee. But it takes five votes to get a change through the entire council, and each of the nine members can count to nine.

If I were a betting man, I'd bet that some of the after school park programs now on the chopping block will be restored. There likely also will be some additional money for both police and fire to help deal with homeless people through outreach teams and quality of life officers.

One thing is a sure bet. There will be changes to the budget presented by the city manager and mayor. It might be change for change's sake. But it will be proof that the council members are paying attention. Really, they are.

Harry has been executive editor of Gazette Newspapers for more than 26 years. He has been in the newspaper business for more than 35 years, with experience on both weekly and metropolitan daily papers in Colorado and California.

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