City Manager, Lamont Ewell held the first of the his five community budget meetings at John Muir School in Ocean Park to discuss community priorities and how they are integrated into the City’s budget process. Overall, the message of caution from Ewell was that Santa Monicans need to decide where to shift their priorities to survive the economic turmoil ripping the nation.
“We are not going to be able to do it all,” he said.
Some of those that are likely to remain important are funding for education, public safety, and also Ewell espoused remaining committed to community projects –– especially because they are the type of cuts elected officials often look to cut first when budgets are tight.
“We made a commitment and we need to stick with our projects,” Ewell said.
Lee Swain, director of public works, pointed out that the silver lining of a bad economy is decreased costs of production.
“The good news is, we get more for our money, there are more bidders and more competition,” he said and added that delaying projects risk price escalations.
Ewell, who will be retiring at the end of December, prefaced the discussion by highlighting the bleak national economic situation. Although national media have reported indications of recovery in the corporate market, Ewell cautioned that many of those gains are based on reductions in payroll through staff cuts and are therefore misleading. He also cautioned that recent climbs in the housing market must be viewed in light of a 12 percent decrease in home values. Ewell pointed to 15 million unemployed US citizens and an additional 5 million underemployed as true indicators of the situation.
In California, Ewell needed only to point to the projected $15 million or more deficit for this year to reassure everyone that circumstances within the state are grim.
After painting ugly economic national and state pictures, Ewell shifted his gaze to Santa Monica and talked of shifting priorities. For Santa Monica, the total expenditure budget for FY 09/10 is $539.3 million.
In FY 08/09, city departments were directed to save 3% of their operating budgets. As part of the FY 09/10, departments identified 5% expenditure reductions and those reductions that had minimal impact to the community were incorporated as part of the 09/10 approved budget. The City is considering additional reductions projected at about 3% moving into the 10/11 budget process.
“We are going to see a lower level of services, given the level of budget we are anticipating,” he said.
To compensate for the economic sting, Ewell said Santa Monica has two options: Either reduce expenses or increase revenues. Increasing revenue is not the answer, he said, because Santa Monica revenues are underperforming by two or three percent. Instead, he candidly stated that cutting salaries and wages is probably the best option and even suggested cost sharing methods may need to be explored.
Those in attendance in the packed school auditorium voiced support of increased support of bicycling and other human-powered modes of transportation, ensuring water conservation on city landscapes and inquired on how to ensure the return of events like Cirque du Soleil and attracting others.
One of the latter projects Ewell espoused support of is the restoration of the Civic Auditorium, which Ewell envisioned as a venue for movie premieres, concerts and other events that would bring business to Santa Monica.
–“We think this is a great opportunity for Santa Monica, especially the West Side,” he said.