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Deep Budget Cuts, Fewer Police, Fire Services Weighed : Shortfall: The city manager says a possible increase in fees and taxes could offset the cutbacks. He hopes for $26.6 million in funds from new sources.

May 16, 1991|FAYE FIORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A grim 1991-92 city budget unveiled Wednesday calls for $24 million in potentially painful cuts in police, fire and other local services, and city officials warn that the quality of life in Long Beach will decline dramatically without a tax increase by this summer.

"We have cut through the fat. We have cut through the meat. We're into the bone," City Manager James C. Hankla said of the $1.6-billion proposed budget that includes a reduction in the city's police force for the first time in memory.

Such dramatic cuts would be unavoidable, Hankla said, without a $26.6-million increase in utility taxes, trash collection fees, boat slip charges and various other levies that would cost the average Long Beach resident about $5 a month.

If approved by the City Council, the new money would prevent some of the most drastic cuts in services and would provide the city at least a $3-million reserve for emergencies, but still short of the $9-million reserve Hankla deems "safe" for the fifth largest city in the state.

The recommended budget now goes to the City Council for a series of four hearings that begin Tuesday and that promise to pose some tough choices: whether to cut vital services or impose higher taxes that could prove politically unpopular.

Terming many of the threatened cuts "unacceptable," Mayor Ernie Kell endorsed a utility-tax increase that would cost the average resident about $3.51 a month. The City Council turned back a similar request from the mayor last March.

Kell also called for an increase in the business license tax for anyone who owns four or more rental units. Other possible increases include a higher trash collection fee that would amount to about 79 cents a month per household and a 7.5% hike in natural gas rates--an increase of about $1.75 a month per household.

"No one wants to raise taxes. We would all like to give rebates," Kell said. "But there comes a time when you have to face reality and look at the bottom line."

State and federal money to cities has dried up. Indeed, state legislators are threatening to take certain motor-vehicle and other taxes from cities to help offset a $13-billion state deficit. Such a move would cost Long Beach about $11 million--"a fiscal disaster," Hankla said.

The city has taken great pains in the past to avoid cuts in police and fire services. But caught in the grip of a national recession, shrinking oil money, low sales-tax revenue and general inflation, the city has for years chipped away at public libraries, parks, senior services and the maintenance of city buildings to balance the budget without raising taxes.

This time, however, police budget cuts and layoffs cannot be avoided without new taxes, Hankla said. If the budget is to be balanced without tax increases, 12 police officers will have to be laid off immediately, while 40 more police staff would be eliminated through attrition, including 13 officers, 11 detectives and two sergeants. The north and east police substations would be closed, beat hours would be cut, response time to citizen calls for service would likely increase and investigation of crimes as well as crime prevention would suffer, officials say.

The police cuts would come at a time when the department has been widely criticized for delays in the investigation of some serious crimes. The department has had the worst crime-solving rates in the state for 11 of the last 15 years.

The Fire Department is looking at 20 immediate layoffs in addition to the elimination of three firefighters, two captains, two paramedics and various other staff through attrition.

Also in danger of being axed are the city's Office of Education, the Historic Preservation Officer--credited with saving a roster of historic buildings from destruction--the homeless coordinator, child-care coordinator and the Prenatal Outreach Program, which assists pregnant women.

Senior health services would be slashed. Library hours would be further cut and literacy programs eliminated, along with the city's Summer Concert series, art exhibits and the Municipal Band.

The city could no longer afford to demolish hazardous buildings, and drainage and tree-related repair would be limited to the most critical problems, street re-striping would be delayed, street lights would not be replaced on a timely basis and the Public Corporation for the Arts would be cut back to 1988 levels.

Money has been scarce for so long--the city has cut about $50 million from its budget since 1986--that city buildings are in terrible disrepair, Hankla said, some needing new roofs and other safety upgrades.

"I think people realize that if they want these services they have to pay," Kell said. "There is no such thing as the other guy paying for it."

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