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Many City Employees Hit $100,000 Level -- Time to Move to Zero Based Budgeting

The City needs to grapple with the problems outlined in the Long Beach Business Journal on $100,000 employee positions. The article touts the Mayor and management as being the only movers on the issue of pension reform. However, to think that any pension reforms came without the complete support of the City Council (remember we are still a Council-Manager form of government) is dishonest. All city employees need to pay their share of the pension costs -- including management -- a fact I pointed out during budget meetings and was told by the Mayor that my calling for them to pay their share of pension costs was "class warfare."

The rhetoric needs to stop. Threatening a ballot measure to exact additional pension reform and that would be found unenforceable -- which the City Attorney has reminded several times -- may make some feel good but will not bring the results touted. Instead of chest pounding, the City needs real structural changes in the way we budget and spend money.

The only way we are really going to get any budget reform is to utilize a "zero based" budgeting process -- requiring every department to start from zero each budget year and build the budget by need and not simply add on to the previous budget. In theory, the organization’s entire budget needs to be justified and approved, rather than just the incremental change from the prior year. We need to stop making last year’s budget the starting point for the next budget. Zero based budgeting also allows the city to layout different levels of service so that real choices can be made as to what the city should and can afford to provide. It also helps answer the question: which services should really be funded? Instead of the usual answer: we should fund the ones we funded the year before, it makes elected and managers fund those services that are needed and justifiable.

Zero based budgeting takes considerable work to implement – which is the biggest argument against it. Also managers are reluctant to recommend lower budgets than what they currently oversee. It also uncovers “special funds” tucked away that don’t show up in the current budgets.

The City also has to be completely transparent about how we spend money throughout the year. When I suggested that we do as many other cities and states do – post their monthly or quarterly expenditures – it was met with stiff opposition. It is the money of the taxpayer we are spending and I think they have the right to see our checkbook.

Unless the City of Long Beach is serious about real structural change and on-going transparency, you will read about more and more employees earning $100,000 while City core services are being cut.

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