Huntington Beach City Council passes 2023-24 fiscal year budget, avoids library closures

Circuit, the transportation service that runs throughout downtown Huntington Beach, will be continued until at least Jan. 1.
Circuit, the transportation service that runs throughout downtown Huntington Beach, will be continued until at least Jan. 1 and likely longer depending on funding under the budget approved this week.
(File Photo)
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The Huntington Beach City Council unanimously passed a $500-million budget for fiscal year 2023-24 during a special meeting Monday night, with some last-minute changes to what was originally presented that will allow three branches of the public library system to remain open.

Cuts that were proposed by city staff on Friday would have possibly shut down the Banning, Helen Murphy and Main Street library branches, and cut hours at the Central Library.

For the record:

9:34 a.m. June 28, 2023A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the budget document was revised for Monday night’s meeting, instead of the supplemental “Budget Balancing Plan” document.

City staff worked to finesse things over the weekend after a public outcry that included a torrent of angry emails. Many residents were incensed that the city’s libraries were again at the forefront of a council deliberation, following Mayor Pro Tem Gracey Van Der Mark’s item last week to limit children from accessing books deemed obscene or pornographic by the city.


A revised supplemental document titled “Budget Balancing Plan,” taking out the option of library closures, was distributed to attendees near the start of Monday’s meeting after Mayor Tony Strickland announced no libraries would be closed. This further frustrated some in the crowd, who hadn’t been given enough time to review and form comments based on the new numbers.

“We were given this document at the last minute that says you’re not going to close [libraries],” former Huntington Beach Mayor Debbie Cook said during public comments. “It’s not appreciated when the public isn’t given the information they need up front. Just a lot of hasty things seem to have happened in the last number of months that poke the beehive.”

Huntington Beach public affairs manager Jennifer Carey said Tuesday that the timing was regrettable, but that the budget process is typically a six-month process. At the June 6 City Council meeting, the panel instructed staff to take another look at the budget and see if some cost savings could be found.

“That initial document that was posted [on Friday] with all of the potential cuts was never meant to be a list of everything that was going to be cut,” Carey said. “Rather, it was an opportunity to provide the City Council with a list of items they could choose from ... We tried to listen to the community’s feedback and take that off the list of options.”

Carey added that due to the limited time frame remaining in the process — the fiscal year flips this weekend — information from the proposed revised budget couldn’t be released to the public in advance “like we would have wanted to.”

The presentation Monday night was made by interim chief financial officer Sunny Han, who is leaving for Irvine, like several other high-ranking Surf City officials have in recent months.

With the approved cuts the 2023-24 budget features a surplus of $5.4 million. The 2024-25 budget is projected to have only a $259,000 deficit, as opposed to the $7.4 million deficit that was originally forecast.

The budget for the 2023-24 fiscal year, which begins Saturday, includes nearly $292 million of general fund revenue.

The cuts made include popular services such as the winter ice skating rink at Pier Plaza and the Community Cafe discussions that were launched last fall.

Circuit, the popular transportation service that runs throughout downtown Huntington Beach and now costs $2 per rider, will be continued until at least Jan. 1 and likely longer, depending on funding.

Revenue raisers include increased emergency medical services fees, as well as adding advertisements to the city’s lifeguard towers.

“Almost every economist says next year we’re headed toward a recession, and we’re getting ahead,” Mayor Tony Strickland said “Unlike other councils in other cities, who wait for an emergency situation where they don’t have any options, we’re actually fixing the budget today to make sure we’re not in that position two years from now ... I’m proud of this budget.”

Huntington Beach librarian Erin Spivey addresses the City Council during Monday night's meeting.
Huntington Beach librarian Erin Spivey addresses the City Council during Monday night’s meeting.
(Screencap by Matt Szabo)

Several speakers Monday were critical of the budget adding four full-time positions to the staff of City Atty. Michael Gates, whose office was one of the few not hit with cuts for next fiscal year. The office will add a deputy community prosecutor, two senior deputy city attorneys and one senior legal assistant.

The four positions will cost $675,000 per year, which Gates said is cheaper than contracting the work and that he needed the help. Councilman Dan Kalmick asked for documentation to show the increase in hours worked by Gates’ staff, which now numbers 11 people.

“Our attorneys are working 60 hours a week and they are working weekends, and they have been for well over a year.” Gates responded. “Our attorney staff is way overworked, and that’s nothing new.”

Gates said his office is currently the plaintiff in less than five cases, though a key one is a federal lawsuit against the state of California over housing mandates.

“We need the resources,” he said Tuesday, adding that cases have picked up after the coronavirus pandemic. “It literally has nothing to do with the housing lawsuit.”

Gates pointed to recent rulings that will net the city about $32 million including interest.

“In terms of value, we have far exceeded any burden to the taxpayer,” he said.

Gates’ office was further questioned during public comment. Several speakers mentioned the settlement with the Pacific Airshow that could end up costing the city more than $7 million, though just less than $2 million of that is on the budget for next year. The full settlement has yet to be released to the public, which Gates said is due to pending litigation.

Also, the new City Council majority previously voted to pay more than $500,000 for an environmental review on behalf of the airshow.

“I’ve never heard of [the city picking up the tab for] that,” said Cook, one of four former Surf City mayors to speak during public comments along with Shirley Dettloff, Cathy Green and Connie Boardman. “That’s just ridiculous.”

Former Huntington Beach Mayor Debbie Cook speaks at Monday night's City Council meeting.
Former Huntington Beach Mayor Debbie Cook speaks at Monday night’s City Council meeting.
(Screencap by Matt Szabo)

Erin Spivey, a librarian at the Main Street branch of the Huntington Beach Public Library, said she attended Monday night to speak not as a city employee but a resident of more than 30 years.

“Community and love for community is built in parks and libraries and schools,” she said. “It is not built through business deals and property density statistics.”

Kalmick introduced a substitute motion to approve the budget that was originally presented at the June 6 meeting, removing the four new city attorney’s office positions. It failed, 4-3, with the conservative majority voting against.

“This hurry-up offense is no way to run a half-a-billion dollar organization,” Kalmick said.

He and the other Democrats on the dais ended up going along with the revised budget as presented, with some reservations.

“This process was chaotic,” Councilwoman Rhonda Bolton said. “There are aspects of [the new plan] that I’m still trying to figure out. If I’m still trying to figure it out and the public is still trying to figure it out, then this is just not the right way to do this.”