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City Budget Passes Half-Billion Mark

By Jorge Casuso

June 18 -- Briefly falling $82,000 short -- or as one council member jokingly put it, “close enough to zero” -- the City Council Tuesday unanimously approved a record $524.7 million budget for fiscal year 2008-09.

The balanced budget represented a $43 million hike over the previous year’s budget, furthering a trend that has seen the City’s revenues and expenses swell over the past decade, while Santa Monica’s population remains relatively stable at about 85,000.

The general fund budget used to deliver services -- which is bankrolled by taxes, grants and service charges -- grew to $252 million, from $245.8 million, or an expenditure of nearly $3,000 per resident. Ten years ago, it was $107 million, or about $1,900 per resident. ("Great Expectations or Spending Spree?" June 16, 2003)

While the budget, which had been hammered out and discussed during three council study sessions, surpassed the half-billion-dollar mark, the council Tuesday night focused on the discretionary use of half a million in one-time funds.

The money will be used for the following:

  • $119,000 for additional tree maintenance,
  • $40,000 for Pier Holiday lights,
  • $32,000 for the Cal Safe Program to provide counseling to young parents,
  • $100,000 for public art maintenance,
  • $200,000 for a signal on PCH at the 1440 PCH lot and
  • $10,000 to towards Third Street Historic District identity program.

With $419,000 left to play with, that left the council $82,000 short.

“Eighty-two is close enough to zero,” Council member Ken Genser joked. “It’s just one time. We just may be close enough for government work.”

But Assistant City Attorney Joe Lawrence warned that “technically a budget has to be balanced,” prompting the council to borrow the balance from an account that will be repaid.

In addition to the last-minute spending decisions, the council directed staff to segregate airport fines for “neighborhood friendly” mitigation projects, consistent with applicable law. It also directed staff to return by midyear with a review of the current Fire Department dispatch system and review alternatives.

There have been complaints since the department contracted with the Los Angeles Fire Department Regional Dispatch Center on January 2007 in an effort to improve Fire Department radio communication capabilities and dispatching services.

The current system, which costs $2.4 million, was chosen after nine options were explored over the period of a year and a half, Fire Chief Jim Hone told the council.

“I don’t recommend to go back where we were,” Hone said.

Putting in a system “just to communicate effectively” would cost between $1.5 and $3 million, Hone said. It would cost another $1.2 million to staff the system, which could also require a supervisor.

But council members said they were concerned enough with the current system to call for a reevaluation.

“It just isn’t up to the expectations that we had,” said Council member Kevin McKeown. The City, he said, “should accelerate the process of looking at this.”

The City’s first budget to exceed $500 million -- which City Manager Lamont Ewell has said could be viewed as “very aggressive” -- adds 45 full-time equivalent personnel for “essential positions,” 12 of them paid for with the general fund. ("City Manager Proposes Record Budget," May 21, 2008)

The rest are paid for with non-general fund revenues that include $65 million in earthquake redevelopment funds bankrolled by increased tax assessments when a property changes hands -- money that normally would go to the County to pay for services.

About half of all the new positions – which will be funded in part by proposed increases to beach parking rates – will staff the $27.5 million Annenberg Beach House at 415 Pacific Coast Highway, which is scheduled to open next spring.

The budget also adds four full-time Police Department employees and three full-time Fire Department employees.

In another change to the budget presented last month, the final budget adds a building inspector to help with the Building and Safety Division’s green building inspection workload at a salary of $73,718. The increase is offset by the elimination of a vacant disaster relief position in the Finance Department that paid $119,240.

The council Tuesday also directed staff to prepare a resolution placing a measure on the November ballot to ratify and update the existing Utility Users Tax on telecommunication without increasing the tax rate, which has been in place for 39 years.

The proposed budget allocates $21 million for capital improvements, including improvements for the Pier, the Borderline community and the western segment of Ocean Park Boulevard.

Despite the record budget, the City needs to be cautious, the City Manager told the council.

“We still have vulnerabilities,” Ewell said. “The State has not passed a budget yet. We still have a very cooling economy.

“We feel comfortable with some conservative growth assumptions,” he said, “but we need to be very prudent.”





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