Santa Monica could face a deficit as high as $29 million by the summer of 2018. Accordingly, City Hall hopes to take a few steps in order to either keep certain costs from outpacing revenues or to find alternate sources of funding to close the gaps.
During a presentation of the City’s five-year budget forecast at the Council’s last Tuesday meeting, both members of the seven-member panel and City staff discussed the possibility of assessing modest fees for non-residents who utilize Santa Monica services such as the library and swimming pool.
According to City staff, maintaining the current status quo means Santa Monica’s budget will near $29 million, or 8.5 percent of the budget. Under that worst-case scenario, the City’s deficit would be $4 million as early as the 2013-2014 Fiscal Year.
“Under all scenarios, General Fund expenditures exceed projected revenues,” City staff stated in a report. “In the best case, the General Fund would see a deficit of almost $9 million starting in FY 2014-15 that increases to $15 million … in FY 2017-18.”
City Manager Rod Gould gave Council members a candid introduction to the agenda item.
“The good news is that our major revenue sources are growing … and have been growing,” Gould said. “As a result of the depth of the Great Recession of 2008, our revenues got back to the 2007 level last year in 2012. It took five years to build back to where we were.”
While the outlook was not entirely rosy, there were a few thorns to pay attention to, Gould told Council members.
“Our challenges largely have to do with the loss of redevelopment at the hands of the state,” he said. “This makes it much harder for us to budget for capital programs, to refurbish our facilities, and to develop affordable housing. It also challenges our ability to maintain adequate reserves for a rainy day.”
Gould warned certain expenditures are growing faster than revenues, including pensions, health care, and worker’s compensation.
Looking forward, both Gould and City staff recommended offsets to the budget, such as reductions to certain expenditure areas, as well as practicing restraint with staff budgets.
“To eliminate current and out-year projected deficits and also maintain a healthy level of General Fund reserves, (City Hall needs to follow a) strategy based on a restrained spending regimen that includes limiting total compensation increases, targeted spending cuts and revenue increases,” City staff stated.
Gould said a disciplined approach to budget management would help Santa Monica sustain “financial stability.”
“If we take these steps, which are draconian, then I believe we will be able to maintain our financial stability over the next five years and eliminate out-year deficits.”
According to City staff, there were some other promising data from last year.
“Property values in the City increased by 3.6 percent in 2012, the second consecutive yearly gain. Total assessed value ranked third in Los Angeles County after only the cities of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Modest growth is expected over the forecast period,” City staff pointed out in its report.
“Sales tax receipts, which declined for two consecutive years due to the economy and the temporary closure of Santa Monica Place for remodeling, have also turned around as the economy recovers and Santa Monica Place has re-opened,” City staff added.
Interestingly enough, the council mulled over an idea to commence charging non-residents for certain services. For example, residents and non-residents alike may access Santa Monica Public Library at no charge.
Gould had recommended potentially charging non-residents a modest fee to access the public library system, a practice common in other cities throughout Southern California.
It was an idea council members seemed amenable to.
Council member Kevin McKeown also requested City staff look into whether switching over to a single-payer system to provide health care coverage to city employees could help moderate the escalating costs of medical insurance.
Gould suggested by assessing reasonable fees upon non-residents who use Santa Monica services would allow the City to manage its reductions while maintaining current revenue growth, as opposed to cutting certain services entirely.
Another issue that was discussed was the possibility of increased rates for non-residents to use Santa Monica’s Swim Center.
By looking into ways to assess fees for certain services, City Hall believes it can manage finances with controlled cuts while sustaining current growths in revenue.
However, if such options were not incorporated, the worst-case scenario of hitting a $29 million deficit in the next five years would become a reality.
Another issue City Hall must consider in its budget forecast: almost 80 percent of the budget is dedicated to employee salaries. Making cuts in various departments will not be easy and are contingent upon labor laws and union negotiations.