VIRGINIA AVENUE PARK — “Flat is the new up.”

It may not be the catchiest slogan, or the most inspiring. But when applied to the city of Santa Monica’s budget outlook, City Manager Rod Gould will take it.

As he told a group of residents who gathered at Virginia Avenue Park on Wednesday evening, simply avoiding layoffs and budget cuts for the next several years has to be viewed as a remarkable success, considering the far worse shape so many other cities around the state are in.

Revenues from sales tax and tourism in Santa Monica are still lagging behind their 2007-08 peak, and both property tax and business license revenue are down from last year.

But with most categories expected to rebound within the next couple of years and some already showing renewed strength, Gould said there’s a bright spot for Santa Monica.

“If we hold the line here, if we just take a breath and hold in check our desire to do even more every year … I think we can get through this without having to make the hard choices, the ugly choices, that are being made in municipalities around California,” he said.

While the City Council won’t have to decide on a budget until June, the process of determining community priorities for the upcoming fiscal year is already underway. Gould’s comments on Wednesday came during one of a series of meetings being held around Santa Monica to gather resident comments.

Without excess revenue to fund pet projects, though, there was very little wish list-making at Wednesday’s session. Gould said big-ticket items, like new bike paths, for example, will likely have to wait a few years.

Even with an estimated $6 million in added revenue for city services from the recently passed half percent sales tax hike, City Hall will have to tighten its belt just to stay on track as pension and benefit costs are projected to keep rising, according to Gould. Finding satisfaction in simply staving off cuts to existing services for the time being, he acknowledged, is a tough pill to swallow for many Santa Monica residents used to progress.

“That’s not a very exciting notion, but I tell you, having been through years of cutback management in other cities, it’s exciting to me, because there is nothing worse than having to move backwards,” Gould said.

Of course, the forum on Wednesday, which was the third of five scheduled events, was also a convenient venue for residents of the Pico Neighborhood to lodge in-person complaints about things like street lamp light bulbs that need replacing and street corners that need more intensive policing.

Just about every City Hall department head and a number of rank-and-file staff members were on hand to answer resident concerns during the two-and-a-half hour event.

Future meetings with the city manager will be held:

• Nov. 30, 7 p.m., Grant Elementary School Auditorium, 2368 Pearl St.;

• Dec. 2, 7 p.m., Montana Branch Library, 1704 Montana Ave.;

• Dec. 6, 7 p.m., McKinley Elementary School Auditorium, 2401 Santa Monica Blvd.

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