Get ready now, Long Beach, for tougher budget years ahead

Watching the Long Beach City Council discussing the city’s 2015-16 budget was kind of like watching the calm before the storm.

In a series of unanimous votes, the council agreed to spending nearly $428 million in general funds for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.

The general fund pays for core city services, such as police, firefighting, libraries and parks.

The overall budget totals about $3 billion, including funds restricted to paying for activities at the Port of Long Beach, Long Beach Airport, Water Department and Tidelands.

Mayor Robert Garcia called the budget “responsible,” saying he wished the city had more resources because there are so many needs in the community.

Councilman Al Austin called it “a safe budget” considering what lies ahead.

What’s looming in the city’s future are huge, multi-million-dollar deficits brought on by rising pension costs and low oil prices.

Also ahead are sure-to-be-tough negotiations with the city’s police and firefighters unions.

The council gave employees represented by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace a one-year pay raise with no impact on pension costs.

But that one-year deal has expired and that same union, the city’s largest representing 3,500 city workers, is back at the bargaining table.

So far, the city has been doing some adroit budgeting to keep the city on a balanced course, but there is little doubt that a storm is approaching and will have to be dealt with eventually.

Some critics have said the city should be making some cuts now to avoid more drastic and deeper reductions later.

There is some optimism at City Hall that increased revenue may come from the sale of redevelopment properties and other new development to ease the pain.

But officials need to be careful about wearing rose-colored glasses on those projections.

The 2015-16 budget calls for a few modest improvements in public services.

One of the most prominent changes is the plan to spend $950,000 to reform parking restrictions by rescheduling street sweeping hours that have made it illegal to park curbside between 4 and 8 a.m.

Three library branches — Bay Shore, Burnett and North — will be opened on Sunday at a cost of $183,000.

Although there was general consensus on most of the issues, some council members chafed on issues involving the spending of each council member’s discretionary funds for infrastructure improvements and programs.

Councilmen Roberto Uranga and Rex Richardson complained about their decisions having to be approved by the full council.

Discretionary funds total nearly $2.6 million with about $300,000 going to each of the nine council members.

A compromise was reached allowing spending on already existing programs.

There also was some discomfort with the council’s decision approving $30,000 to match money raised by Friends of the Municipal Band to add another week of concerts to the summer series.

The Municipal Band does not play in every council district and some wondered if that was fair.

Overall, however, the council reached unanimous agreement on the budget, and there were smiles all around.

But that storm is on the horizon and isn’t going away.