We’ve been hearing for years about the coming City Hall fiscal “bomb” when the cost of retirement packages employee benefits and rapidly rising health care costs will outstrip revenues. Nearly 2,200 people are currently on the city payroll. That’s roughly one city employee for every 42 residents, a ratio that far exceeds the employee-to-resident ratio of most other U.S. cities.

Santa Monica has a high degree of activism. That’s led to a great deal of criticism of elected and appointed officials as well as city staff who many view as overpaid and underworked.

So, what’s a new City Manager to do? Rick Cole has only been here a few months. Last Tuesday evening, he made a presentation to council that would create a new and costly municipal Office of Communications. “We need to do a better job on communication,” he told council. “We want to have a first class, two-way communications function. We think there is an opportunity to do it right and the staffing plan I presented you tonight is the way to ‘do it right.'”

“There are all kinds of challenges to communicating in a modern world and we intend to do a great job and this is what we think this will do,” he said. “The city needs to embrace new communication technologies; Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Facebook ‚Ķ Plugging the new people in requires that much more effort. Not just ‘PR,’ but engagement ‚Ķ active, continuous, two way dialog with our customers‚Ķ” The staff report adds, “The [new] team would convey city information to people who live, work and visit Santa Monica to encourage civic engagement, inspire community dialogue, raise awareness and a deeper understanding of City government.”

Keep in mind that most of the municipality’s communications have been handled piecemeal on a department-by-department basis. Specialists produce the Seascape and operate City TV, Channel 16 on Time Warner cable. Public relations and general press information now comes from the assistant City Manager.

Can City Hall afford a gold-plated public communications team? Former City Manager Rod Gould was so concerned about looming deficits that he backed a ballot measure in November 2010 that increased the sales and use tax by a half of a percent. Voters approved Measure Y which promised to raise $6 million annually to forestall deficits created by accelerating costs for retirement packages and health care.

Despite an improving economy, dire deficit predictions continued. At a Jan. 22, 2013 council meeting, staff warned that a deficit as high as $29 million was possible by the summer of 2018 unless expenses were reduced or alternate sources of funding were found.¬† “In the best case, the general fund would see a deficit of almost $9 million starting in FY 2014-15‚Ķ” Without cuts and adjustments, the city could face a $29 million deficit in five years Gould said at the time.

A news article in the Feb. 18, 2014 Daily Press quoted Finance Department director Gigi Decavalles-Hughes as saying that property, sales and business tax revenues were higher than expected, but City Hall is projecting a $3.2 million deficit by fiscal year 2017-18 that could still reach $9.2 million by 2017.

A special thanks to councilwoman Sue Himmelrich who pulled this item from the consent calendar for discussion because she questioned the need for an additional expense of so many new employees. At least someone on the dais is watching the municipal purse strings.

This seems to be an expensive undertaking. I, along with others working in the local news media, wonder if Cole’s plan is overkill; too much, too expensive or really needed? With the rush by council to get this program started and spend money, it appears that worries about long-term deficits and seas of red ink have fallen by the wayside.

The new Office of Communications will be supervised by Debbie Lee, City Hall’s Communications and Public Affairs officer who was hired last July for at a $155,784 annual salary (plus benefits). Her department promises to facilitate the delivery of City Hall’s news and public relations messaging, in addition to absorbing the Community & Government Relations functions from the city manager’s office.

Council unanimously and enthusiastically approved this major expansion of the city’s public communications efforts including adding five new job classifications at a cost of $539,649 (plus benefits) for the rest of this fiscal year. A couple of existing staff positions will be redefined and moved to the Office of Communications. Additional expenses and overhead could easily push this new PR department into the million-dollar club, annually.

Here are the new salaried positions council approved: In addition to Lee and an administrative services officer (no salary disclosed), there’s a cable TV manager at $10,270 month, senior marketing manager at $10,270 month, public information officer at $10,270 month and a marketing/communications assistant at $5,143 month – all plus benefits.

A full-time web developer will support the new department along with a staff assistant and a (part time) graphic designer. They’ll all be paid out of the 2015-2017 biennial budget general fund.

We’ve recently witnessed a major disconnect between City Hall and residents over major community priorities. There have been major differences between residents and City Hall on handling traffic, overdevelopment and parking policies, low-income housing, the Hines project and now, the proposed downtown Fourth/Fifth Streets/Arizona Avenue tower.

We must make sure the new Office of Communications isn’t used to stifle legitimate differences of opinion and “outshout” citizens who disagree with municipal policies.

Bill Bauer can be reached at mr.bilbau@gmail.com.

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