In Closed Session

Will our elected officials do the right thing this time around?

Will they be able to set aside their petty grievances, rise above the need to serve themselves first and do the right thing?

Likely not in Washington, but we're talking the Long Beach City Council here, and early indications in the annual budget process are that they just might consider the city as a whole at least as much as they consider serving their district (thereby attempting to ensure reelection).

The first indications surprisingly came from discussions about fixing streets and sidewalks. It is surprising because streets and sidewalks are the bread and butter of district politics. Those fickle voters can put up with almost anything if the street in front of their house is pothole-free and the sidewalks aren't crumbling away.

For years now, the council has voted themselves access to a chunk of money they like to call "divide by nine," ostensibly for infrastructure repairs. Their rationale is that they know their districts better than anyone else, and can prioritize spending (primarily street and sidewalk repair) better than the professionals can.

You can imagine where that went in a hurry. Some council members were diligent in efforts to fix the worst problems. Others not so much. That money instead went to pet projects, occasionally being shifted all the way to paying for programs (that, at least, has to get full council approval — usually on the consent agenda).

And there still will be some divide by nine money in the 2018 budget. But the council seems to have bowed to the greater good when it comes to that shiny new pot of money from Measure A, the penny on a dollar sales tax increase.

Thanks to Measure A's expected $26.3 million for infrastructure (that much and a little more goes to public safety), Long Beach is looking at a rather astounding $92 million for capital improvements in 2018. Some of that money is restricted to use on specific types of things — arterial streets from one county source, parks and recreation for another, etc. And some of the Measure A money will go to buildings of one shape or another. For example, Vice Mayor and Ninth District Councilman Rex Richardson almost broke into a jig at the capital improvements overview meeting when it was revealed that $4 million would go to starting a new community center at Houghton Park.

But there still will be plenty of money for streets. Mayor Robert Garcia said this week that more than 50 miles of streets will be paved and repaired in 2018. As importantly, he said, the decisions where to do the work will be data driven. That data comes from the Public Works Department and the extensive street condition inventory they have completed.

Sounds good, but this decision, along with the budget as a whole, must get past the City Council.

And some of the most territorial of council members, at least in the past, appear to be swallowing the good for everyone pill.

Fifth District Councilwoman Stacy Mungo, who chairs the powerful (at least at this time of year) Budget Oversight Committee, led the way, saying data-driven decisions would allow the city the most bang for its capital improvement bucks. The Third District's Suzie Price wasn't far behind, and Eighth District Councilman Al Austin made it unanimous, at least from the BOC.

But there's still a long way to go — a month full of budget hearings, and a month full of getting an earful from each district's voters. Can the sudden move to scientific-based decisions prevail?

Yes, especially if there are a few more $4 million windfalls to go around.

There's one other budget item to watch closely. The revenue projections the financial gurus based Fiscal 2018 on is more realistic (their word) than the very conservative approach of past years. They've convinced me it makes sense — it's silly to deliberately spend less just to have a big chunk of money at the end of the year, right? And this way, no services are cut.

Not so fast. There are arguments against optimism (oil prices come to mind), and that big end-of-the-year chunk has paid for lots of one-time stuff that wouldn't have seen the light of day otherwise.

My prediction is the revenue projection stays. It's either that, or the council is going to have to come up with cuts. In an election year? Nah.

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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