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SMa.r.t. Column: Santa Monica Needs More Sunshine

You wouldn’t think so by looking outside, but Santa Monica is under ominous dark grey clouds on the horizon in which a storm is brewing, but this is not a weather forecast or about climate change, its about shining more sunlight on our local government expenditures and what agendas and interests are behind them to best accomplish city policy, fiscal goals, and the budget. 

Santa Monica brings in a great deal of tax revenue, more per capita than most small cities in California so why then are we increasingly in need of additional funding, bond issuances, and restructuring old and increasing debts? The answer lies in knowing and understanding how our tax dollars and city revenues from other sources are actually allocated and expended specifically, not just as displayed to the public in a general or summarized accounting version. 

Sound fiscal policy and judgment need to be monitored and evaluated regularly, regardless of whether there are issues or not, it’s like preventative medicine. There are numerous committees, sub-committees, and action groups in Santa Monica. We do have an Audit Subcommittee whose mission statement is to “Assist the City Council in fulfilling their oversight responsibilities for the financial reporting process, the framework for internal control, and the audit process”. 

But reality check here…at the rate we have been going, it has been shown that Santa Monica will not be able to keep up with future expenses and growing financial liabilities. So what can be done about it? We must demand that a deeper, more seriously organized hard core examination is implemented to determine on a prioritized and targeted basis why, how, and to whom our money is spent. Waste of taxpayers dollars on inflated programs and goods which are priced above market value has been historically well documented across the board for governments in general but it continues to go on like someone having a public credit card that has no limit…the ultimate American Express red ink card but without focused accountability.

Part of this is quite simple; it’s not the size of our Cities revenue stream that is the real issue, it’s the current expense river. If our city was an actual business it would already be looking at potential bankruptcy and/or reorganization strategies and unfortunately, there have already been other small cities that have gone in this direction. Let’s not go down that river because we know where it leads, and it’s not going to be a pretty place, even given our beachfront location.

So the question is where to start and what are the main objectives? First, Our city government’s overburdened and bureaucratic management system represents and wants us to believe that they have an effective array of tools for evaluating problems and introducing timely solutions for public problems and expenditures, but it has been shown that there are lapses and miscommunication between numerous departments which contributes untimely problem solving, overspending and running over budget. So at this point can we really count on these public agencies to be able to be transparent on their own and improve expense efficiency? 

Improved transparency and clear understanding of public spending increase the movement towards real democratization, which results in more opportunity for traditionally voiceless groups, the ghosts in our society such as the economically challenged and intellectually disabled, minority ethnic and religious groups, students, and others starting out in life to become more involved in the actual development of practical solutions and policies.

If we agree there is a need for more sunlight and transparency we should consider hiring a short term external and politically neutral “financial oversight committee” with the authority to publish and make recommendations to the cities audit subcommittee, council, and management which would have to be openly addressed one way or the other. 

At this point given the current dichotomy of political goals, policies, actions, and special interests can we truly have confidence that our city government is making all policy, financial decisions, and investments for the general benefit and best interests of the actual majority of Santa Monica taxpayers and local business owners rather than third party external businesses, developers or other corporate interest groups? How else can we securely monitor and concurrently develop verifiable performance incentives that will prod staff and management to align and review even the smallest of expenditures in the budget? 

One example is the current marketing concept of meeting and matching grant funds for various programs and improvements. In many cases, this presents a great opportunity to do just that, but in other cases, it is just an unnecessary and ill-timed expense to consider. Like the buy 2 get 1 for free mentality. If you don’t need even one at this time, what’s the point of buying more just because it’s available now? We just don’t have that luxury in today’s world. At this time, only the most required projects should be given due consideration for this, and remaining “matching funds” for the other less essential projects could be used for something else like increasing the rainy day funds. 

Because targeting these expenditures, investments, and decisions and then enforcing government accountability is a massive hair pulling out of your head task, we cannot recommend addressing this effectively as individuals or even with our city audit subcommittee at this time because of the organizational structure being splintered and out of alignment. 

Therefore the role of a temporary external intermediary organization with the authority to question, examine, audit, and then communicate suggested recommendations to staff and management that are made public is a fresh approach in the aftermath of Covid-19. Whatever name you give this group or entity is not important, the bottom line is we need a few professional independent persons experienced in analyzing these matters to assess the city’s current programs effectiveness, public expenditures, and their investment and management operation strategies such as:

> Balancing current and growing Pension fund liabilities. 

> Maximizing income and optimizing operation expenses on city-owned real estate that will benefit the residents and the economically depressed small businesses in alignment with policy.

> Outsourcing more cleanup and property management services using small to medium businesses versus hiring more full-time city employees thereby supporting small businesses and lowering city costs plus the competition would create better performance incentives. This is particularly relevant in the Downtown area and Promenade where property owners are being taxed additional dollars for homeless, cleanup, and security services which have been less than stellar.

> Should the city be hiring more full-time staff to previous levels at this time and increasing costs and pension liabilities when at the same time authorizing the use of robotic delivery services to replace needed working-class labor and income? This seems diametrically in opposition to what we believe the City stands for or should. The city can easily approve spending more money for their full-time employment needs (which are questionable at best at this moment) but will approve feel-good “cool image” tech programs, pilot or otherwise not. This will start a trend to put many outside productive working people out of a job. This is misdirected decision-making on many levels. 

> Improvement regarding processing city homeless and mental health issues with agency consolidation, targeted and measured support by better management information and communication systems. 

> Permit issuance efficiency across the board. Look at automation options where a great deal of staff time can be saved.

> More centralized automated accounting system to provide better clarity and assist in the management level decision-making process.

> Specific performance reviews for achievable targeted goals with management and staff feedback for suggested improvements every quarter.

To be clear, this is not about pointing the finger and casting blame, diminishing, or discounting staff and management efforts. This is simply about the government coming together as a working system more cohesively and efficiently. Political and ideological differences must be put aside for this purpose as the future of our city and the quality of the environment affects us all and future generations of Santa Monica’s population. 

It’s a fact that public spending in our most low and middle-income sectors falls far short of being as effective or as equitably allocated as it needs to be but little if anything is being done to implement meaningful changes. The main premise is that most solutions do not require more taxes and wasteful spending. We propose conserving and spending what we do have more equitably, efficiently, and prudently is the best approach. 

In closing, remember that our city government’s true strategies and priorities are revealed by how it responds with policy and spends our hard-earned individual and business tax dollars. Let’s just take a deeper look inside and see what can be improved upon.

By Michael Jolly for AIRCRE for SMa.r.t. (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; Marc L. Verville M.B.A., CPA (inactive); Michael Jolly,

AIRCRE

For previous articles see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writing

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