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A Piece of the Pie: The Politics of Approval:

Frank Loweree

Special to the Mirror

The City of Santa Monica’s annual budget approval process concerns nearly $400 million in revenues and expenditures, and the line-item explanation itself is close to 500 pages in length. Income flows into the general fund from local taxes, licenses and permits, fines and forfeitures, services charges and money and property uses; and expenses flow out for police and fire services, community and cultural services, general government, planning and community development and capital improvements totaling almost $210 million.

Other designated funds cover revenues and expenditures for the Big Blue Bus, the Redevelopment Agency and the Housing Authority totaling nearly $190 million. How does it all get tracked, accounted for, managed and disbursed in a way that will provide the greatest good for the greatest number of residents, businesses, groups, City departments and staff?

“Coming in as Santa Monica’s new City Manager just as the 2006-07 budget development season began was fortuitous for me,” says City Manager P. Lamont Ewell, who arrived from San Diego in January of this year. “I’ve been learning about each department’s functions, complete with financial detail, and at the same time getting a good feel for the Council and community’s top concerns.” At the Council study sessions on May 23, 24, and 25, the City Manager will give a budget overview; departments will present their budgets briefly and questions will be considered. What cannot be answered at that time will be researched and provided prior to the budget adoption meeting on June 20th.

“Our department has no priorities; we simply prepare the budget,” says Steve Stark, Director of Finance, who came to Santa Monica from Santa Clarita two years ago. “We will release the proposed budget to the Council on May 16th, and modifications will take place during the three study sessions.”

Stark prepares a five-year revenue and expenditure forecast for the various City departments to ascertain this fiscal year’s priorities, and there are ongoing public opportunities for input to the Finance Department and Council members. Specific requests are put into various categories and given to various oversight, regulatory and program commissions, such as Recreation and Parks, Airport and Planning, which study the requests and make their own recommendations. Each commission has at least one liaison Council member.

“It is typically a staff-generated budget,” says Ken Genser, who is the Council’s longest standing member with 18 years. “Most of the revenue goes to fund necessary ongoing programs, and the small amount of unallocated money left over is voted on by the Council.”

Former Mayor Richard Bloom has been on the Council for seven years. “Public input tends to reflect the same things we already know are community priorities like schools, youth and senior services, neighborhood quality-of-life improvements, pedestrian improvements, affordable housing and making progress on homelessness,” says Bloom. “Tough economic times have forced us to cut back on things like street maintenance, community festivals and tree-trimming. I want to see those returned to full funding.”

“We are seven residents elected to represent the whole community,” says former Mayor Pro Tem Kevin McKeown, who has been on the Council for eight years and is up for reelection this November. “While we certainly have individual interests and constituencies, we work on the budget as a team.” McKeown works closely with neighborhoods, business interests, organized groups, boards, commissions, senior staff and others in weighing priorities and sifting through the best ideas the community has to offer each year.

“Programs involving the arts and social services often operate in three-year grant cycles,” says former Mayor Pam O’Connor, who has been on the Council 12 years and is also up for reelection. “The Recreation and Parks Commission’s budget process is a good model of how programs-oriented commissions develop and present priorities with recommended actions to the Mayor and Council members.” This year’s parks commission’s goals include: an increase in public parkland, safe alternatives to driving, solar-generated park lighting and improved maintenance and upgrading of existing parks.

With ongoing input from the City staff, the Council, the commissions and the public, the upcoming study sessions should provide a successful arena for the modification and adoption of the City of Santa Monica’s 2006-07 budget. To express your opinion, go to www.santa-monica.org/finance.

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