LONG BEACH — Over the last few months, Long Beach leaders have put an exceptional amount of effort into planning for the 2017 fiscal year and beyond, according to Mayor Jerry Phillips and City Administrator David Glasson.
In a Dec. 1 interview at city hall, Phillips and Glasson said city staff and council members sought advice from department heads, reevaluated budget priorities, analyzed data, held public meetings and created a six-year list of projects while planning the 2017 budget, which they expected to adopt at the Monday, Dec. 5 city council meeting.
This comprehensive effort to create a detailed picture of the city’s financial needs has already paid off — the city managed to find enough money to hire a much-needed seventh police officer. However, the city will be raising water, storm and sewer rates more than usual this year. Water prices will go up by 10 percent, which amounts to an increase of at least $3 per household per month. Sewer rates will increase by a little under $7, and stormwater by about $1, meaning that most households can expect to pay a minimum of about $11 more each month.
Additionally, starting next year, the city is going to have to find a way to increase its revenues to pay for future maintenance, staffing and other needs. During 2017, city leaders will seek input from citizens as they consider various ways to increase revenues, Phillips said.
“Overall, I would say we’re probably a little bit better off than in 2016,” Glasson said. The city spent slightly more than budgeted in 2016, so it will enter 2017 with slightly less carryover in the Current Expense fund, which pays for most of the city’s expenses.
At the beginning of 2016, the city had a beginning fund balance of $202,203, compared to $143,399 in 2017. Even if it is lower than last year, it’s a pretty healthy number, Glasson said, especially compared to budgets of years past. Just a few years ago, the city often started with a balance of about $60,000 — a pretty small amount to carry the city through the slow winter months before tourism taxes and other revenues start rolling in.
Phillips and Glasson wanted to take an unflinching look at the city’s near, mid-term and long-term needs. So, Glasson said, they went to the people who know best — the staff members — and asked them, “What is it you really need?”
Staff weren’t necessarily asked for their insights in years past, Phillips said, and at first, the question made some employees nervous. Once people started talking though, their answers were an “eye-opener,” according to Glasson.
For example, the city maintenance crew pointed out that due to inadequate storage facilities, expensive pieces of equipment sit in the open, where they’re exposed to the elements, as well as potential theft or vandalism. The city ends up paying for repairs to the equipment.
Sewer and water pipes that have outlived their projected lifespans by a decade or more could break at any time, creating the need for expensive emergency repairs and roadwork.
The police department has a couple of vehicles that are nearing the end of their life-span.
There are streets that desperately need upgrades, and the city’s utility plants are going to need work too.
“I really think it gave us a much better evaluation of the health of the city,” Glasson said.
One revelation was that “It was really a priority” to hire a seventh officer for the Long Beach Police Department, Phillips said. With just six officers, staffing gets complicated when an officer has to take time off. The small staff size also presents a challenge when it would not be safe for an officer to respond to a call alone.
Phillips had to find about $80,000 to pay for the new officer’s salary, benefits and training. Historically, the city has used money from the Current Expense Fund to pay $12,000 for summer beach safety patrols. Glasson and Phillips realized they could free up some money by using revenues from the lodging tax fund, which is specifically designed to finance things that encourage tourism, to pay for the patrols.
In the past, rowdy skateboarders, hard-partiers and vandalism were chronic summer problems, so the city employed two temporary officers to do downtown foot patrols. But in recent years, those problems have tapered off. LBPD Chief Flint Wright agreed to give up the money for the temporary officers to help pay for a full-time officer. The city of Ilwaco, which contracts police services from LBPD, agreed to increase its contribution by $10,000.
“When you add all those things together, it adds up to a seventh officer,” Glasson explained. The city will begin recruiting the new officer in early 2017.
As part of the process, the city also create a “capital facilities plan” for 2017 through 2022. In all, the plan includes more than 20 priority projects, along with the estimated cost for each, and a proposed timeline for completing them.
Among the projects are upgrades to stormwater pumps, street improvements, repairs to the beach boardwalk and public restrooms, setting up an operation for handling treated wastewater sludge, and improvements to the sewer and water systems. In all, those projects will cost at least $7.5 million. Some of the money will come from existing city funds, low-interest loans, and grants, but the city will still need to find a way to significantly increase its revenues, Phillips said.
Phillips said the city simply can’t continue to sustain quality facilities and services without more money.
In the past, cities often raised revenue by increasing property taxes by as much as six percent each year. However, due to anti-tax activist Tim Eyman’s controversial 2001 initiative, Washington cities can now only increase property taxes by one percent each year without approval from voters. That amount doesn’t keep pace with the ever-increasing cost of running a city. City leaders inevitably end up funding only the most pressing projects each year, while projects that affect quality of life — like improving smaller city streets, beautification projects, fixing potholes and building dog parks — languish.
Glasson said city crew members told him, “We’re becoming a maintenance crew. We want to be improving things.”
Philips said the council members were initially very reluctant to increase utilities prices, but came around after viewing presentations about the city’s finances and upcoming needs. He noted that Long Beach still has very affordable water compared to other Pacific County communities. According to a city report, “Long Beach could raise water rates by $12.95 or 42 percent, and still be the lowest [in Pacific County].” To counteract the impact on low-income seniors, the city has proposed a senior discount of as much as 25 percent, depending on income.
The council made the decision with “all the ratepayers in mind,”, Glasson said.
“Rates increase for the council too, so they know the impact,” Glasson said.