CITY HALL — Santa Monica’s streets will be cleaned, its alleyways policed and its citizenry prepared for disaster, at least for the next year.
The City Council gave its final approval to a $523.7 million budget Tuesday night, a vote which City Manager Rod Gould described as “the single largest legislative act that the council takes.”
The document was largely unchanged from what appeared before the council during three study sessions last month, at which time department heads presented their requests for funding and plans to cut extraneous costs.
The most evident revisions came from moving around Redevelopment Agency funding, which cut approximately $123.4 million out of the “expenditure” column for this year.
That money didn’t go away, explained Finance Director Carol Swindell, but it was taken out because it wouldn’t be spent right away, and several of the projects budgeted could see changes in cost over the next few years.
Planning for that redevelopment cash is still risky given threats at the state level, Gould said.
Two bills are aimed squarely at the redevelopment agencies, one of which would eliminate them altogether while the second would allow cities to pay the state to keep their agencies.
“It’s referred to as ‘pay up or die,’” Gould said, calling the proposal a series of “ransom payments.”
Although several hundred million dollars of the budget — including controversial fee increases surrounding outdoor dining and utility permits — passed quickly with little comment, it still took two hours to get to the next item on the agenda.
Those two hours were devoted to less than 1 percent of the $523 million total, a $300,000 discretionary pot of cash kept aside for councilmembers’ pet projects.
The allocation is a tradition from the Lamont Ewell-era of city government, Gould said Thursday. Ewell served as city manager before Gould assumed the post.
The discretionary fund gives council members, who have a straight line of communication with their constituents, a bit of flexibility to fill in holes where they see fit.
Much of that conversation was dominated by Councilmember Bobby Shriver, who focused on the one-time funds as emblematic of a problem he had with the budgetary process overall.
“I feel I’m entitled to say that the $300,000 is a farce,” Shriver said.
The relatively insignificant sum masked the wider issue of a budget created with minimal engagement of the public and the City Council, he said. Council members don’t know where all of the money goes, and instead just sign off on the big picture.
“It always made me uncomfortable, which I attributed to being a beginner,” Shriver said. “Now I think it’s a process point: how to make this process more inclusive of real budgeting.”
Not so, argued Councilmember Kevin McKeown, who noted that councilmembers craft the budget with each vote and direction to staff over the course of years.
“We are the city policy makers, not the city accountants,” McKeown said.
In the eyes of city staff, the budget comes with a great deal of public process, from initial meetings with the business community and neighborhood groups to council presentations in January and February to three back-to-back public study sessions in late May.
Even with all that input, the council still has final say, Gould said.
“The council always has the opportunity to change priorities, and put more here or less there,” he said.
If, however, the council chose to engage in line-item budgeting, it would consume every meeting of the year, Gould said Tuesday.
It’s unclear exactly what will come out of the discussion, although it appears that council members may propose ways to more fully engage with the budgeting process, which Gould said he was curious about and open to.
Although heavy analysis was given to the purpose of the allocation, by the end of the night, the majority of the $300,000 remained dedicated to City Hall coffers.
Only $72,900 got allocated to four causes: Outreach efforts for the Urban Forest Master Plan, AmeriCorps and two Buy Local causes.
That came as a disappointment to members of the local Meals on Wheels, who came to request increased funding armed with long chains of paper plates, each inscribed with a message from a client that benefits from the service.
“City Hall’s current focus is to let the elderly age in place in their homes,” said RoseMary Regalbuto, the executive director of the program. “They live longer, stay healthier and place less demand on strained human service networks.”
The plea led to the closest vote of the night.
While other resolutions relating to the budget passed with a comfortable margin, a vote which would have given the food program its requested funding failed, with councilmembers Bob Holbrook, Pam O’Connor and Shriver in favor.
“Meals on Wheels is more than food,” Holbrook said. “I’m going to stand on this as my first priority for this budget at this moment.”
Those who voted against it were concerned that giving more money to one group would not be fair to others.
Councilmembers also gave the nod to the 2012-13 budget, which was approved, although not formally adopted.
This is the first time that city staff has prepared a biennial budget, the thought being that it would save staff and council members time next year.
Having the budget pre-approved will mean that the budgeting process next year will involve only minor changes, Swindell said.