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Sinking City: Long Beach Faces Deep Financial Troubles

From the sixth floor windows of Long Beach’s embattled city hall, the panorama is spectacular, especially on a cloudless, windless twilight evening when the Atlantic is turning deep purple as a freighter is churning to New York harbor, an occasional jet plane is streaking across the indigo sky for Europe, and the pointed skyscrapers of Manhattan are sparkling magically on the horizon. It’s a multi-million-dollar view—a realtor’s dream—but the roof leaks and some plaster is crumbling near a corner of the ceiling of the public meeting room. But for a city that suddenly finds itself possibly $10 million in debt this year, with more deficits to come next, repairing city hall is the least of Long Beach’s problems.

At this altitude it’s easy to forget the economic troubles facing struggling store owners in the city below. Justine Champlin, for one, is going to close her gift shop Carleton & Dayne next month after almost 10 years in business—and still has a back room filled with unsold candies and souvenirs pegged to last summer’s Quiksilver Pro New York surfing tournament, which the city cut back drastically, some say callously—after Tropical Storm Irene swept in and left thousands of homes without power.


Or that even two of the city’s current five council members are dogged by their own nagging headaches: One is charged with 38 counts of illegally collecting unemployment benefits (one count for each week he filed, supposedly) after an investigation by the Nassau County district attorney. Another councilman has continued to collect a disability pension from the state while running 10K races and marathons, drawing the wrath of the New York Post.

Long Beach, despite all its fresh air, smooth sands, refreshing waves and seaside charm is fractured like shattered glass by politics and divisiveness that, to an outsider, defy typical party labels. And the wonder is how the “Riviera of the South Shore,” as it was once promoted, will ever pull it together to solve its fiscal crisis and get back on track. If it can right the ship, it will set an example for municipalities across the region. But right now it’s listing, badly.

The situation is more complicated than Republicans against Democrats, given the shifting alliances. On the simplest level, the local Democrats pulled off an upset in November by gaining a four-to-one majority on the city council, ousting the local Republicans and ultimately replacing Charles Theofan as city manager. The 59-year-old was nicknamed “Freeport Charlie” by his opponents.

Don’t cry for Theofan—he’s just been hired as Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano’s deputy county executive, supervising the county attorney’s office, housing, community development and planning. There he’ll be mired in Nassau’s even bigger budget troubles.

His replacement in Long Beach is Jack Schnirman, 34, Brookhaven’s former chief deputy supervisor, who’s been slammed by his critics for bringing along “his Brookhaven cronies,” as they put it.

But the fissures that splinter this city can look pretty byzantine to the casual observer. “Revenge” is now the operative word at the police department as the formerly demoted are promoted and the promoted are demoted (or retired) thanks to the change in regimes. On the beach there’s a pitched battle pitting swimmers versus surfers, and even the two taxi companies, Long Beach Taxi and Beech Street Taxi, are squabbling over picking up passengers arriving at the Long Island Rail Road train station.

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