CITY HALL — A number of popular projects throughout Santa Monica will be put on hold or downsized so that City Hall can balance the loss of its Redevelopment Agency with a list of projects it believes are too big to fail.
A five-member City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to put the brakes on $141.9 million worth of projects, including renovations to the landmarked Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, a $55 million overhaul of facilities at the Santa Monica High School campus and a program that would have promoted home ownership at Mountain View Mobile Home Park.
Those projects have been temporarily sacrificed to the Department of Finance, the state agency that is overseeing the dissolution of California’s over 400 redevelopment agencies as part of a bill passed by the state Legislature in December 2011 meant to plug holes in California’s leaky budget.
That process became more brutal for cities when the Legislature passed a budget trailer bill that empowered the Department of Finance to cut cities off from property and sales taxes if it disagrees with certain redevelopment-related payments.
If the state department gives a thumbs up to Santa Monica’s projects, City Hall can take them up again. If not, no dice.
At the same time, the City Council chose to press on with $115 million worth of projects, despite the fact that they might not be safe from the state’s clutching hands.
Those projects, including an estimated $20 million program that provides housing vouchers to elderly residents on the verge of homelessness, could have “considerable consequences” if City Hall were to halt them in midstream, said Andy Agle, director of Planning and Economic Development.
“This is really significant. This is not future housing,” Agle said, referring to the 81 seniors who use the housing vouchers. “These are actual people relying on these vouchers, actual seniors that without these vouchers we think many of them would be on the street.”
Similarly, city officials will argue to save several affordable housing projects, two of which would be cut off half-built if the Department of Finance chooses to deny them.
Other projects, like the $47 million Palisades Garden Walk Park and the Town Square Park in front of City Hall, are technically less critical but stopping progress wouldn’t provide much savings.
“That’s a huge site,” Agle said. “To leave six acres as a big, unfinished construction project will have very significant implications for the community.”
Instead, city officials can shave approximately $6 million off of the project without a huge impact on the public’s perception of the park.
The Pico Library, traffic signal upgrades, Colorado Esplanade project and enhancements to the Exposition Light Rail stations coming into the city will all proceed more or less as planned.
Staff did recommend to cut off three major initiatives, however.
The Civic Center Joint Use Project, a collaboration with the local school district to revitalize several sports facilities on the campus, was rejected by Department of Finance officials earlier this year because the agreement was executed one day too late.
“We will go back and say that we think this is a bonafide agreement, but it puts the city and the school district at risk,” Agle said. “Both of us think that this is the time to take a breather before we continue to spend money.”
A program that gave Mountain View residents an ownership option on mobile homes in the park will end after it provides homes to the 10 families and individuals that have applied since the program became available.
Finally, renovations to the landmarked Santa Monica Civic Auditorium will be put on hold, indefinitely.
The building, which once attracted the stars of the 1960s era when it hosted the Academy Awards and has agreed to play home to varied events like the Santa Monica Cat Show and rock shows like the Silversun Pickups, will operate through June 2013.
If no other funding sources become apparent, the building will be mothballed.
It’s the most visible loss to the city, both in terms of the building’s size and prominent location and what it means to the 20 members of city staff who will lose their jobs.
City officials have said they will do their best to find those staff members other jobs at City Hall or elsewhere.
Originally, the plan was to close the building down and immediately launch renovations, said Jessica Cusick, cultural affairs manager with City Hall. Now, the staff will have to try to ferret out other resources to pay for the seismic retrofits and other improvements.
Shutting the building down will save City Hall money in the short term. The building currently operates at a deficit of $2 million a year on average, and shutting the building down is only expected to cost around $250,000 per year, according to an estimate created in 2011.
Even on ice, the building won’t keep forever, Agle warned.
“A dead building dies quickly, and it’s not without expenses,” he told councilmembers.
Council members voted to accept the contingency plan, but without much gusto.
Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis called it a “sad motion,” and lamented the loss of the Samohi collaboration.
“We send a message with the facilities we put our children in,” Davis said.
City officials worked hard to avoid this outcome, even traveling to Sacramento to plead the case, although there was little to show for it, said Mayor Richard Bloom.
“This is affecting real lives, real jobs,” Bloom said. “There are people in this city that won’t have jobs in the future and there are jobs that aren’t being created because of projects that are being reduced in size or aren’t happening at all.”
It’s a problem across the state, with uncertain consequences for California, wrote City Manager Rod Gould in an e-mail.
“No one can clearly assess the full cost of the fiscal distress of cities for the state,” Gould wrote.
Lost capital for local projects will slow an already sluggish recovery and keep unemployment rates high as cities hit bottom and shed employees.
“But instead of deferring capital maintenance and critically-needed facilities, we should be investing in infrastructure that provides short-term economic stimulus and long-term competitiveness,” Gould wrote.