By Judy Abdo and Juan Matute
The magnitude of the crisis facing Santa Monica and the hard choices we must make cannot be understated. The unsurprising but likely devastating absence of a federal relief strategy for cities like Santa Monica means that many communities will be forced to make painful cuts. When governments make cuts, it is almost always the most vulnerable among us who suffer the most.
The path ahead for Santa Monica, laid out in the staff report released Friday, is a bleak one. We stare down a potential $300 million deficit over the next two years. But while it is clear that we have to be realistic about how to respond to this crisis, we must do so in a way that does not compromise our values by disproportionately impacting the most vulnerable members of our community nor forces us to abandon our commitment to a sustainable future. To do this, we have to make fact-based decisions not only about cuts, but also how we can increase revenue so that we can close the gaps these unforeseen losses in revenue have created.
We need a response more in the spirit of the New Deal than the one hoped for by the Mitch McConnells of the world. The answer is not to shrink government to oblivion. It is to govern well, guided by values. Some may see the shrinking of Santa Monica’s government as something to cheer, but if we want to stay true to the vision that has made Santa Monica into the great place it is today and will make it into an even better place tomorrow, our response to this crisis must be rooted in three major values: equity, transparency, and efficiency.
Yes, cuts will have to be made and we — as a community — will have to make sacrifices. But if we are committed to progressive values, it is our responsibility to ensure the burden of those cuts do not fall disproportionately on the shoulders of the most vulnerable in our community.
Affordable housing, childcare for working families, access to safe streets, and reliable transit are not luxuries to be compromised — they are bedrock services that mean the difference between life and death, having a home or being out on the streets, for thousands of families in our city. For our community and our economy to recover, Santa Monica families need to be confident that they will have roofs over their heads, and we need to preserve before-and after-school care so parents can return to work quickly. We also need to maintain our commitment to sustainability, which includes making sure our streets are safe and accessible for all who use them, from the dishwasher who rides his bike from the train to the family that walks in their neighborhood for exercise.
Creating a big-picture vision for a broad economic recovery is really the only way we can, in the long-run, ensure that revenues recover quickly and give us the resources necessary to get back on track, restore services and programs that had to be eliminated or reduced, and redouble our commitment to being an equitable and inclusive community.
In this critical period, we need a more transparent process of City financial decision-making. Working with the limited publicly available data sources, we have developed a financial projection tool – available at santamonicaforward.org/financial-projections. This tool allows anyone to consider the facts and choose among options to boost revenue and reduce expenses in the City’s budget. In the interest of transparency and to promote further fact-based dialogue, the City should be regularly releasing updated financial data via the City’s Open Data Portal.
To get the economy moving again, the City needs to make it easier for small businesses to operate. Interim and permanent zoning reforms can make it easier for shuttered businesses to reopen and convert commercial vacancies into thriving enterprises. We can provide access to desperately needed new housing, preserve neighborhoods, and set a course for a sustainable future by reducing the layers of process required to get projects off the ground. We support proposed streamlining of unnecessary layers of review, but are concerned that some of the proposed cuts will reduce the ability to digitize processes and improve online customer service.
While the above ideas are by no means exhaustive, the foundational values that should guide our approach are indispensable. Time and again, at the ballot box, at public meetings, and through our hard work as a community, Santa Monica has shown we are committed to an equitable and just society and to a better future where our children and planet can thrive. Now, in the midst of crisis, is not the time to dismantle the social safety net we have spent decades building or to abandon our goals for an environmentally and economically sustainable future.
We look forward to working together as a community in the spirit of cooperation and good faith discussion. We may be facing dark times, but we can work together to get through them.
Judy Abdo and Juan Matute submitted this commentary on behalf of Santa Monica Forward