Eight community members. Seven city of Santa Monica staffers. $4 million in budget cuts.
From November to February, a task force will convene to discuss how to trim $1.5 million from the city’s $756 million 2020-2021 fiscal year budget and an additional $2.5 million between 2021 and 2025. Some of Santa Monica’s most popular programs will be on the table, including public wifi and the farmers markets, as will new ideas to bring in revenue — namely, letting private companies sponsor city events or services.
Finance director Gigi Decavalles-Hughes said the $4 million in cuts will keep the city in the black for the next few years, but staff will need to identify long-term strategies to tighten the budget to avoid a deficit of between $34 and $47 million in the late 2020s driven by rising pension costs and flattening revenues from traditional sources like brick-and-mortar sales tax and parking.
“We have the luxury of being able to offer an unprecedented scope and depth of services to the community, as well as the support systems that are vital to deliver high-quality services,” said city manager Rick Cole. “But we have to make some choices about what is most important. The growth of revenues is slowing, which means the growth in government costs has to slow or we’ll go into the red — and we’ve never gone into the red.”
The Budget Task Force includes individuals who have been embedded in city politics for decades, such as former mayor Judy Abdo and former Wilshire Montana Neighborhood Coalition chair Lawrence Eubank. Professionals who have not yet served on any city boards or commissions, like Metro executive officer Kimberly Ong and K. John Lee, a green building contractor and former accountant.
“I was hoping for a mix of people who know the city well, as well as people who would bring a fresh perspective,” Cole said.
The city staffers sitting on the task force include representatives from the fire and police departments, the Big Blue Bus and the community and cultural services, housing and economic development, and public works departments.
The task force will meet every other Monday to discuss the future of different city services and present recommendations in February on how to shave $1.5 million from next fiscal year’s budget.
Community members said they are entering the process with open minds and a willingness to compromise.
As an executive officer working on Metro’s Purple Line extension project, Ong said she understands how to balance the competing interests of various stakeholders, including community members, elected officials and city staff.
“In order to do what’s best for the city and our residents and programs, I’m not coming in thinking one program is better than another,” Ong said. “I want to find solutions — not say “we can’t do that,” but “how can we do this and what are the possible ways we can accomplish it.”
Lee, who worked as a certified public accountant at Deloitte for many years and served as the chief financial officer of Universal Studios’ real estate company, described himself as a “numbers geek” and a “big believer in good data” who works well in groups and values compromise.
“My foundation is very much numbers, but I’m not so sterile with my analysis,” he said. “I know there are a lot of other factors that come into play.”
Abdo said she will be reluctant to recommend cuts to social services, but she believes there are places all over the budget where small cuts can be made.
“For me, the issue is going to be how we can come together and agree on an approach,” she said. “I’d be hopeful this group can come up with a unified set of recommendations.”
The Budget Task Force will meet Monday at 6 p.m. in the Santa Monica Institute Training Room, 330 Olympic Dr. All task force meetings are open to the public.