Long Beach City Council OKs $16,000 in Sandy relief funds for holiday lights

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The City Council voted 4-1 on Nov. 7 to use a portion of its Hurricane Sandy relief fund to cover the costs of replacing holiday lights and fixtures, many of which were damaged by the storm or severe weather in the years since.

The vote approved the use of $16,400 to purchase strings of lights, replacement bulbs for holiday ornaments, brackets and other fixtures to adorn trees in front of City Hall as well as numerous street light poles along Park Avenue, West Beech Street and the boardwalk.

“Many of these lights, fixtures, brackets and other appurtenances were inundated with salt water in their storage unit during Superstorm Sandy and in the years following the storm,” the resolution stated. “The city has cleaned up the rust and decay and used them, but now finds that many of these items are beyond cleaning and repair, and have outlived their useful lives.”

The vote came weeks before the city’s annual Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony, scheduled for Friday. Acting City Manager Mike Tangney said the measure was time-sensitive, in the interest of decorating the tree and city in time for this week’s event and the holiday season.

In 2013, Long Beach native Billy Crystal donated $1 million to the city’s Relief Fund, which helps finance Sandy recovery projects. He raised $888,000 at a celebrity fundraiser, and he and his wife, Janice, added $112,000 of their own money to round the donation out to an even number.

Tangney said that about $700,000 remains in the fund, which could be used “for recreation and any public-works projects.”

“This is exactly the type of thing that these donations are to be used for,” City Council President Anthony Eramo said.

Lighting up the city for the holidays and hosting a number of events after Sandy became a major effort among city officials, the Chamber of Commerce and local civic groups, to help businesses get through a tough winter season and show that Long Beach was open for business. It included placing nautical and holiday-themed lights along the boardwalk in 2013, and replacing damaged lights in the West End and along Park Avenue.

In 2013, a kick-starter campaign helped raise more than $10,000 to replace seasonal lights for the West End business district that were destroyed in storage during the storm. That same year, the council passed a resolution authorizing the city to use money from the Relief Fund to provide up to $5,000 in matching donations to the North East Bay and Canal civic associations for them to purchase new holiday lights for the East End business district, as the city did for the West End.

Chamber board member James Lynch said that many of the lights were already replaced or hung after Sandy, including new lights on the boardwalk that the city purchased a year after the storm as part of an economic development initiative. The chamber, Lynch said, was involved in purchasing lights for Park Avenue after the storm.

“After Sandy, we all know what this town looked like, and it was a great thing to . . . make the town look good,” he said. “My question is, why are we doing this much maintenance on lights that . . . all seemed to be like they were in good shape?”

“Due to our salt-air intrusion and the rough weather we had in Long Beach, our holiday lights take a beating,” Tangney said. “A lot of them need repair.”

Other residents also questioned the cash-strapped city’s use of the funds, especially in the wake of a fiscal crisis earlier this year. “I don’t want to be a Grinch, but I think we’re so broke right now that maybe it would send a message into the city that we don’t have the money for Christmas lights,” resident Eileen Hession told the council. “I think there are an awful lot of people in town who don’t know what’s going on.”

Councilman John Bendo said that because the money was not coming out of the city budget’s general fund, he voted for the measure. “Since these are donated funds,” he said, “it’s a little bit of a different situation.”

Resident Allison Blanchette criticized the council, and said that the city’s Local Development Corporation and Department of Economic Development should work with the chamber and local civic groups to find ways to offset the costs of the lights. “Has anybody up here thought to task an employee, intern or volunteer with raising funds or finding appropriate sponsorships for the costs of these lights, and perhaps a little more to offset the cost of electricity?” she asked. “These lights could remain up year round to really highlight a vibrant downtown. I’m concerned that we do not have donations and holiday partnerships already in place this season. These annual happenings should be set up and good to go months in advance.”

Councilwoman Anissa Moore voted against the measure, saying that she wanted more information ahead of another meeting that was held on Nov. 20.

Bendo and Councilman Scott Mandel agreed with Blanchette’s suggestion to look into alternative funding sources, though both said that there wouldn’t be enough time to facilitate such partnerships this year.