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|City Manager Delivers State of the City Update at Santa Monica Budget Meeting|
By Michael Aushenker
November 16, 2010 -- Santa Monica City Manager Rod Gould led a presentation at Monday night’s city budget meeting, updating community members on the state of the city and receiving community input, in advance of City Council’s budget planning next year.
After an introduction by Valerie Griffin, chair of the Wilshire-Montana Neighborhood Coalition, who promised “a post-Prop. Y and YY budget report, ” Gould introduced a wide swath of City employees on-hand at the meeting who help shape and design the fate of Santa Monica, from Director of Community and Cultural Services Barbara Stinchfield, to City Engineer Lee Swain, Public Works Acting Director Susan Cline, Information Systems head Jory Wolf, Director of Housing and Economic Development Andy Agle, Principal Investment Analyst David Carr, and Santa Monica’s Chief of Police and several high-ranking policemen.
Gould, whose talk comes six months before City Council adopts its budget, began with an economic outlook in which he predicted “a slow economic growth and stubbornly high unemployment rates.” In light of the State of California’s $25-billion deficit, Gould said, “What we worry about is the State taking funds from local governments.” Despite the passage of Prop. 22, which definitely “designed more barriers, so that’s very good, ” Gould continued, “You can see what a fiscal basket case the State is…the State is so craven, they may take the money, it’ll take three years for them to crank it through the courts, so we’re not really out of the woods.” The passage of Prop. 26, he added, will complicate the City’s move to ban plastic bags, designating its fees as taxes that must “go on the ballot, ” and requiring City Council to rework the legislation.
Some good news came in the area of tourism.
“We see people coming back to Santa Monica faster than in other parts of the country and parts of L.A.,” Gould said. “We underestimated what we were going to make on the hotel tax.”
Because of a six-month lag between when taxes are paid and when the Board of Equalization receives the numbers, “we won’t really know until the end of the year [how much revenue was raised].”
Gould was heartened that Prop. Y passed with 61% of voters while Prop. YY passed with 68%. “That was a resounding statement that we care about our schools,” he said.
The City Manager discussed Transient Occupancy Taxes, which peaked in 2007-08. “That’s kind of the news across the board,” he said. “Overall, property values have declined by 2%. This is only the second time this has happened since 1978.”
At least through 2012, Gould anticipated “an anemic revenue growth.” Priding itself on its diversified tax base, Santa Monica, Gould said, operates “more like a medium-sized county.”
With Santa Monica’s $13-million deficit projected to grow to $35-million, Gould explained that the City has already cut $6 million “from our expenditures as surgically as possible. I defy you to find where we made the cuts. The impact on your services has been nil.”
He pointed out that funds, often earmarked for specific services, could not be taken from one area and applied to another.
Some funds from an Uncertainty Designation Fund “created during better times” will be applied to offset expenditure growth rates, which will be1.5 to 2 times greater than revenue growth. Additional challenges for the City will include rising pension costs for public employees because the system suffered in the wake of the national economic collapse in 2008. Gould said Santa Monica had found a way to reduce health care costs, which were headed for a 15% increase, down to just a 5% increase.
After discussing expenditures and revenue, Gould discussed various citywide construction projects in play, such as the $25-million Palisades Garden Walk and Town Square, a $25-million overhaul of the Civic Auditorium, and a $5.6 million establishment of the Laboratory Childcare Education Center within the Civic Center. In 2011, 70 blocks worth of street resurfacing and 126,000 square feet of sidewalk repair is scheduled. The City is two years behind on its Expo Light Rail, scheduled for 2015, that will spawn three stations in downtown, mid-city, and at Bergamot Station.
While Palisades Bluffs stabilization is already complete, “we have to replace the California incline bridge,” Gould said. “It’s not seismically safe. It’s showing its age.” Work begins in 2012. Meanwhile, a revamping of the Pier Bridge is scheduled for 2014.
Gould went into great detail about Santa Monica Airport, which contract with the City is up in 2015.
“The City has been engaged in legal combat with the FAA,” Gould said, adding that the airport’s neighbors have been upset with the fumes and noise, “toxins spewed by the jets themselves,” and aircraft diversions over Sunset and Ocean Parks. Studies are being done on the health effects of the airport on area residents, and the City must decide in four years whether to close the airport or find a way of making it greener.
On the micro level, Gould revealed that Wil-Mont neighborhood improvements regarding parking, bicycle accommodations, and code/zoning enforcement are in the works while improvements to Reed Park are imminent.
After detailing future improvements, Gould shared some general good news derived from improvements already accomplished.: Crime is down statewide, complaints about police in Santa Monica is down 40%, and environmental groups have upgraded the quality rating of Santa Monica’s beaches. Library circulation has reached an all-time high. “We’re among the top 3% in the whole nation,” Gould said of the library system’s five-star rating, before complimenting Chief Librarian Greg Mullen in the audience.
The homeless count, Gould continued, is down 25% from 2007 “not because we’re driving them out but because we’re housing the most needy and getting them services.”
He also noted the positive economic impact of large-crowd events such as the L.A. Marathon and Glow, and Santa Monica’s 25 active wi-fi hot zones. Related to the latter, he explained how the iPhone’s GPS allows for quick communication with the city government should a citizen use the feature to report a problem.
Also in the good news category: As of January, Santa Monica will become more self-sufficient water-wise, importing only 30 % of its water thanks to the Charnock Well Field Restoration Project, which has put Santa Monica’s water treatment process back in business. The City is also looking into how to make other usage more water-wise, such as landscaping.
Nine months into his job, Gould distilled his city management philosophy as “steady as she goes” and “flat is the new up.” His long-term strategy: fiscal restraint.
“I’d like to put a portion of our new taxes back into our reserves,” Gould said regarding revenue raised thanks to Y and YY.
After his presentation, the City Manager opened the floor to the attendees, who brought up various concerns, including bus-line issues and an inquiry as to whether a dog park could be created.
Wil-Mont issues were also raised. One woman complained about abandoned mattresses in alleys. “It’s not legal to dump a mattress in an alley or dump an appliance by a curb,” Gould responded, adding that while the City could not enforce such actions, they could certainly be called to pick up the discarded garbage. Ditto hazardous waste.
When a woman brought up whether or not it was better to separate paper and plastics to be recycled, Gould tossed it over to “our garbage queen,” Active Solid Waste Manager Kim Braun.
“I just love my new title,” Braun joked, before explaining to the woman that it was, in fact, better to lump all items into one recycling bin, as materials would be separated at Santa Monica’s recycling plant. The woman followed up, asking whether she should wash items before disposing of them, as she felt she was wasting more water by washing items. Braun suggested it was better to wash the items before recycling or else it would take longer to treat at the plant. Gould jokingly advised the woman, “Just don’t put it through your dishwasher.”
One citizen, impressed with the city’s attention to childcare services, addressed the roomful of city employees: “I’m very happy to be a resident in Santa Monica, so thank you all!”
Any Santa Monica citizens interested in providing their input before the City plans its budget should e-mail email@example.com, visit smgov.net/budget, or attend the Feb. 8, 2011 City Council meeting.
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