People swim laps at the Santa Monica Swim Center. (File photo)
People swim laps at the Santa Monica Swim Center. (File photo)

CITY HALL — The City Council Tuesday honed in on freebies given to those that live outside of Santa Monica as one of many ways to tighten the fiscal belt before a potential $29 million deficit becomes a reality.

That staggering amount is the worst-case projection for the 2017-18 fiscal year assuming City Hall makes no changes, but even the best and probable-case scenarios are bad, coming in at $15 million and $26 million deficits respectively.

To be clear, the vast amount of City Hall’s budget — roughly 77 percent — goes to pay for employees, which the council is working to control through negotiations with unions and cost reductions in various departments.

However, to get the potential budget situation under control in an expedient fashion, Finance Director Gigi Decavalles-Hughes recommended finding a mix of cuts and revenue increases totaling 5 percent of the total budget, and targeting out-of-towners is one way of doing that.

City officials identified the Santa Monica Library system as one way that residents subsidize their neighbors by offering free library cards to anyone with California identification.

In the case of the library, City Manager Rod Gould characterized it as an equity issue, noting that half of the library system’s users come from outside Santa Monica and pay nothing to support it, whereas residents pay taxes to maintain its catalogues of books, magazines, movies, music and programming.

“If something is priced as low as zero, you tend to get overconsumption,” Gould said. “Rather than cut in the library system, do you want to charge a modest non-resident library card fee?”

Those kinds of trims, rather than outright decimation of programs, will help get City Hall to its 5 percent goal of reductions and revenue increases while causing the least pain.

Efforts to charge more to outsiders have already met with resistance in some areas.

Dozens of participants of the Southern California Aquatics (SCAQ) program attended the meeting to request a reprieve from new rules that doubled their rates for swimming lanes at the Santa Monica Swim Center.

The organization, which is based in Los Angeles, has many Santa Monica members but not enough to comprise 50 percent of the membership, the threshold needed to qualify for the lower resident rates.

Rates will go up almost 86 percent from what the group is paying now, said SCAQ founder Clay Evans.

The group can take up between seven and eight lanes at the Swim Center, which under new rules will cost roughly $104. Divide that by the number of swimmers that usually attend — between 25 and 30, he estimated — and you’ve got a cost of $4 per hour to swim with the group when it costs $2 to enter for normal lap swimming.

Nowhere else do you pay more to buy in bulk, Evans said.

Other swimmers believe that the policy unfairly excludes those who work in Santa Monica and want to enjoy the city’s services.

Robyn Beresh works for Macerich Company, the owners of Santa Monica Place. She does everything but sleep in Santa Monica, but still counts against SCAQ’s residency totals.

“I am not a resident, I am a work resident,” Beresh said. “I spend the majority of my days and dollars in Santa Monica.”

Another alleged weakness in the system was pointed out by Councilmember Kevin McKeown, who said that a SCAQ member from outside the city who swims in Santa Monica once a week counts the same as a resident in SCAQ who uses the local pool five times a week, according to the current accounting.

He proposed a different accounting method that charged organizations based on use rather than straight membership.

While that might be possible in the future, the Swim Center’s current registration software isn’t capable of splitting up information that way, said Karen Ginsberg, director of the Community & Cultural Services Department.

Either way, city staff is willing to try the new accounting for a time and then reevaluate, Ginsberg said.

Although sure to meet resistance, these kinds of cuts will be important to Santa Monica going forward because the city is no longer flush with cash, Davis said.

“I think it’s important for people to understand that those days are over,” she said. “We used to joke that there was a printing press in the basement of this building. That has broken down.”

City officials will come back to the council spelling out the areas where City Hall could begin charging non-residents for services.

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