The days are in slow motion now, as one day blends into the next. In a city where time now stands still, is the stillness of our streets something to celebrate or revile? While our lives have slowed, the wheels of city government accelerate towards a cataclysmic collision with the 2020-2021 Santa Monica city budget on June 30, 2020. Our general revenue shows a steep decline during this time of international crisis. The vast majority of our sales and bed tax revenues are gone. The projected shortfall through the end of the budget year is $72 Million. The city’s chief finance officer predicts a $154 Million shortfall during the following fiscal year, which begins on July 1. Massive cuts are needed and will affect the services you receive from the City of Santa Monica.
Whether the budget cuts are temporary or permanent will depend upon soul searching by the city council, the interim city manager and department heads, the unions that represent municipal workers, and each of you. Now, our instinct as residents will be to look at the cuts that affect us, our parents, grandparents, and our children, and cry “foul.” That will be the wrong approach. All of us can look at the amount of city staff per capita in Santa Monica and surmise that Santa Monica has not been a lean fighting machine.
~ We must establish a “council of civic elders” now to aid the city council as they attempt to make the needed budget cuts. Former city managers, city commissioners, and other wise city leaders can add valuable input to the difficult decisions that lie ahead.
~ My grandparents often used the phrase, “Spending money like it’s water.” We’ve seen this in action for many years in Santa Monica. You’ve heard about the city hall annex, the voting rights lawsuit, the climate action plan, the cost of restrooms, and staff salaries that outstrip those of most of our residents. Our city even subsidizes duplicative services, and that is wasteful. A private business would never succeed if run in this manner. And, many of us complain that the cost of having the ocean breezes waft outside our windows is ridiculous. We have come to expect gold-plated, concierge service in our neck of the woods. While all of the above is true, there is a difference. We are not a private business, and when the chips are down, who are you going to call? You’re going to dial City Hall, SMPD, SMFD, or the city department that will give you a quick fix. How do we reconcile our expectations against the reality that is rapidly approaching? Our community blinders must come off regarding our city budget and exact staffing needs.
~ Let’s take a look at the folks in City Hall. We average over 24 city employees per capita in Santa Monica. Comparable cities, including Redondo Beach, Newport Beach, Santa Barbara, Berkeley, Ventura, and Santa Cruz, operate with a substantially leaner municipal workforce. We average 12 to 19 more staff members per capita than any other city of our size in California. Former City Manager Rick Cole proposed cutting almost 500 city-funded positions to help solve the budget crisis. That will still leave us with a higher staff ratio than comparable communities. However, these cuts will leave the city government gasping for air. We will have to lower our expectations. Expect some city departments to be folded into one another to reduce the cost of multiple department heads and assistants. It will take longer to solve your problems, and while the layers of bureaucracy will shrink, they won’t end.
~ Extravagant civic building projects, park improvements, and sustainability efforts will be shelved or deferred for the next few years. The “gravy” is now gone. Our town will be on a “lean cuisine” budget for the foreseeable future. What about the private sector? The developers are at our city’s borders, with forks and knives in hand, ready to slice and dice what’s left of our city. But now the slow growth advocates in our town have ammunition.
~ We know that the more densely people live, the more chance there is of a pandemic taking hold. Each of the five- and six-story buildings that have been recently erected or are in the planning stages in Santa Monica will add density and mass to our beachside city. Imagine what the planned 12 story buildings will bring to our town. Now that we have spent 24 hours a day in a quieter, less hectic Santa Monica, do we want to return to constant traffic jams, hordes of tourists, and a city that is blind to its residents? So, maybe this huge budget deficit is an opportunity to remake this place that we call home. The population of California has stabilized and is beginning to dip as some people start to flee to less populated places to live. This population decline in dense, crowded urban areas will accelerate as the effects of this pandemic reverberate through our state. Some east coast cities are already seeing an increase in urban real estate listings as those residents try to escape to less crowded suburbs. Will the people in Santa Monica stand up and emphatically declare that open space is more desirable than density? Will renters start to make different choices? Will work-life balance, growing families, and living space within their homes outweigh the benefits of a 375-foot apartment? The health of the environment around you is now more critical than ever. Because of that, Santa Monica needs to rethink its zoning codes and area plans. Yes, the city will try to solve the budget crisis by easing the zoning codes further to encourage development as a way to make up lost revenue. That would be the worst possible scenario.
~ Past pandemics have ultimately reshaped the world. The Renaissance, Modernism, indoor plumbing, wide boulevards, single-use zoning, and sewer systems are among the positive changes brought on by the horror of disease throughout the ages. Now we have the opportunity to reshape our city. The need for safe, wide-open spaces to connect will be strong once the threat of the virus recedes. For years to come, we will want to assemble in spacious outdoor environments. Parks and plazas will be more critical to city residents. Small, boxy apartments, large office buildings, and mixed-use complexes will be considered unhealthy.
~ The diet that Santa Monica faces over the next fifteen months will be stringent. The cuts to the programs we love will be dramatic, but as with a good diet and proper exercise, we will become a stronger, more reliable Santa Monica. If we plan accordingly, Santa Monica will be resilient, will recover, and will prosper once again.
~ Our hearts go out to those who are suffering from COVID-19. We are grateful to the hospital personnel who are fighting to save lives. Our government officials at the state level and in our city have been exemplary. The people endeavoring to keep us fed, the support personnel who deliver our goods, and our public safety departments who keep us secure, deserve to know our gratitude is immense. Golden State Warrior Stephen Curry reminds us, “We have a unique opportunity to come together, to bridge humanity, and the future of our world depends on what you do next…our small gestures in times of crisis can end up being the big gestures that made the difference.” Please remember to help those in need. Nod to your neighbors!
~ Santa Monica College’s Meal Project has delivered 17,651 meals, 1, 854 bags of groceries, and served 3,147 students in need, so far. You can add your donation at https://www.classy.org/campaign/meal-project/c253454.
“There are some things one can only achieve by a deliberate leap in the opposite direction.” Franz Kafka
~ Let’s resolve to shed the waste of the past and rekindle our love for Santa Monica as a leaner, wiser town with a sparkling ocean and fresh ideas that work for our community. We have no choice.
By Phil Brock for SMart (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)
Thane Roberts, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Architect, Dan Jansenson, Architect, Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi, AIA, Planning Commissioner, Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission.
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