Guest Column

Long Beach faces an 'unnecessary' cash crisis

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Six years ago, Long Beach was a city on the brink. We faced an inherited fiscal crisis and the daunting prospect of rebuilding after Superstorm Sandy. But working together, we rebuilt and made hard choices that set us on the road to recovery.

Long Beach made real progress, evidenced by improved ratings from bond rating agencies. It wasn’t easy and, as we always pointed out, there was still a long road ahead.

Despite shrinking the size of government 11 percent over the past six years, Long Beach faces the same structural challenges, including rising fixed costs and stagnant revenues, that almost all local governments struggle with.

The city now faces an unnecessary short-term cash crisis after some members of the council voted down a routine annual budgeted bond item previously approved unanimously by the City Council as part of the city’s budget and long-term financial recovery plan. During my tenure, we brought that cost, and thus the amount of money that needed to be borrowed, down each year.

Predictably, this vote quickly triggered Moody’s Investors Service to revise the city’s rating outlook to negative, directly citing the self-inflicted sudden liquidity crunch. This is the governmental equivalent of not paying your credit card bill and then being shocked when your credit score plummets. When these ratings go down, taxpayer costs go up.

Meanwhile, discussion centered around employee accrued vacation and sick time, including from my own six years of service, continues to swirl. My leave pay was calculated the same way as all other management employees — no more, no less. I reported my time off to the payroll staff as I took it, like all employees, and I played no role in calculating my own leave pay.

It was based on a legal interpretation made years prior and applied evenly for many years. I welcome the Office of the State Comptroller — which already provides an annual review for Long Beach — to review the process. While my understanding is that all payments were calculated properly, if a review shows the city made any error in my payment, I would immediately return any overage.

May is budget time in Long Beach. For each of my administrations six budgets, we provided detailed presentations, explaining three approaches to choose from:

•Raid the rainy-day fund to generate a short-term cash infusion at the expense of long-term sustainability

•Cut the city’s services to generate recurring savings

•Prune the city’s cost structure by focusing on key priorities

Those choices remain today. We in Long Beach enjoy a robust menu of services for a city of our size, including a local paid fire and police department. We must recognize those services come with a heavy price tag.

There are interests in Long Beach that benefit from maintaining the status quo, and yet continuing to delay these choices constrains our options.

When times are hard, Long Beach comes together. When we rebuilt the boardwalk, some residents insisted on the same historic wood, some demanded all concrete and some preferred to delay reconstruction. Thousands engaged in a collaborative process, and the result was a model of resiliency for the entire region.

In our budgets, we collaborated to prioritize our city’s values: managing our fiscal and physical recovery, public safety, quality of life, economic development, sustainability, and smart government. I hope that spirit of collaboration will allow our city to let our values guide the necessary tough choices.

Now is the time to come together and again ask ourselves these questions: What services do we deem critical, what are we willing to pay more taxes for, and what we are willing to cut to keep taxes down?

What should be done? First, let’s engage constructively in the process. Let’s assist, advise, and back up our city leadership so that they can make the tough choices required. We must accept some politically sensitive hard choices must be made if we are committed to ultimately achieving long-term financial stability and keeping taxes down.

As city manager, I was administrator and advisor to the policy-makers on the City Council, laying out the issues and options. As Nassau County Comptroller, I see that Long Beach faces similar issues to municipalities across our region. And as a Long Beach taxpayer, I will speak up to keep taxes down and prioritize what improves and protects our families’ quality of life.

Long Beach is an incredible place — it’s why I was proud to serve as city manager and assist with our recovery, it’s why my wife and I are raising our family here, and it’s why I am proud to serve as our city’s first-ever countywide elected official.

Just as we came together after Sandy, I know we can come together to make the hard choices now. So let’s put aside the politics and get to work.

Schnirman is the Nassau County comptroller and former Long Beach city manager.