“We’re responding every day to new information,” said Santa Monica City Manager, Lamont Ewell, about the economic uncertainty that surrounds this year’s budget. “We’re building wings as we jump off the cliff.”The budget will be a clear expression of our values. It goes without saying that there will be difficult decisions. There could also be potential opportunities and benefits. Hard facts. Fewer tourists are staying in hotels. The transit occupancy tax was minus18 percent in December and minus 28 percent in January. Fewer people are eating in restaurants. Receipts from auto sales and leases, which account for over 20 percent of our sales tax revenues, are down. Business incomes are down and so business fees are down. Only 40 percent of homes on the market have sold, many at reduced prices, and so the property transfer tax is down. Unemployment rates in Santa Monica were at 4.3 percent one year ago and are now at 7.2 percent. Budget problems at the State Government level mean reduced funds for Santa Monica.City response. The City Manager required departments to reduce budgets by 3 percent in 08-09 and by an additional 5 percent in 09-10. 70 percent of the City budget goes to salaries and benefits. Cuts will come in hiring freezes, except for sworn personnel (fire, police) with exceptions made on a case-by-case basis and the same holds for hiring consultants. City employees aren’t traveling to conferences. Building inspectors are on contract and, if there is less building, there will be a reduction in building inspection staff. Cuts will also come from deferring maintenance and deferring projects that are funded through City funds.New income. The City is working with Senator Feinstein, Senator Boxer and Congressman Waxman to aggressively pursue Federal Economic Stimulus Package funds. Eligible Santa Monica projects include the California Incline and the Palisades Park bluff stabilization. These projects would bring jobs and income to Santa Monica. Opportunities. We have talented staff supervising the work of consultants. Now is their opportunity to show their skills and expertise. We have places in City Hall where there is too much bureaucracy. Cleaning up the process of applications and decision-making could result in financial savings and in making life easier for a lot of people – both in and out of City Hall. Benefits. An unexplored, at least publicly, set of possibilities might exist in opening up City Staff benefits to the community as long as it doesn’t add an expense line to the City budget. One thought is to open the City fiber optic system, where possible, to residents. This was done in Vermont, which provides free access in many areas. Another possibility is to allow residents to buy into the health care the City offers employees, such as the City contract with Saint Johns. And more.Opportunities. The Community could take care of their own street trees and parkways, with advice from the City Forester. Neighborhood Watch Groups could find out what to do to be helpful to the Police and Fire Departments. Volunteer more in the schools and at the library and hospitals and the animal shelter. Benefit. We’ve had a tension between City Hall and City residents that a lot of folks would like to see mended. Finding ways to help each other and working together to keep the City whole and healthy during difficult times might just be a good start.
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