City Council recently commended staff for bringing forward a balanced budget that includes funds for economic recovery efforts and other Council priorities. But after months of being cooped up inside as a result of the pandemic, local residents are pleading with city officials to fully restore the recreation services they have become so accustomed to throughout the years.

When the City was forced to cut its budget last year in the midst of the pandemic, CREST’s enrichment classes, school break camp and its afterschool program, which offers homework assistance, field trips, classes and outdoor play, were allowed to continue, but the community’s beloved playground access, youth sports and homework programs were cut.

Since the cuts, community members like Ann Hoover and other Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District stakeholders have been outspoken about a need to restore the services, especially since more parents will be returning to the office in the coming months. However, the FY 2021-23 Proposed Budget presented to Council Tuesday only calls for the continuation of the CREST Club, CREST Camp and CREST Enrichment programs, meaning the CREST Sports and Playground Access programs will likely go unfunded once again this year.

Hoover, who spoke during a public comment period Tuesday along with dozens of other locals who were concerned with local pool and library hours, said she believes parents would sponsor low-income participants or even pay increased fees to bring back the programs in full.

But Santa Monica’s Housing and Economic Development Director Andy Agle said the fees would likely be “huge” if they were to cover the costs that are necessary for the City to provide the proper staff ratios and ground support needed to continue the programs.

So, the programs would also still likely need some support from the City, Agle said.

“I’m not sure there’s a way to come up with a program that completely relies on fees without making it too difficult for access by our families,” he said.

Councilmember Christine Parra asked if there was a way to adjust the agreements with SMMUSD and other local agencies.

“I’m just trying to think outside of the box and see how we can look at different ways we are able to open up these community resources, but also keep the fees down,” Parra said.

Director of Finance Gigi Decavalles-Hughes noted this year’s budget is strapped as a result of the pandemic.

“We cut our operating costs by 20%; we cut our budget so much last year that what remains are essential services, so whatever we could cut, we cut last year, and any kind of expansion that we are showing this year is very measured and very much focused on the priorities that you asked us to look at,” Decavalles-Hughes said. “So, bottom line is any additions to this budget, especially in the general fund, would require an equivalent amount to be taken away from something else. It would require a trade off of the same amount, because, as (Councilmember Kevin McKeown) said, we’re at zero fund balance.”

Mayor Sue Himmelrich said she holds the same view as Parra, which is that this should be collaborative.

“We’re talking about children; we’re talking about the city; we’re talking about the schools, right? And everybody has skin in the game,” Himmelrich said, “so we could build some collaboration.”

Interim City Manager Lane Dilg clarified there may be a path forward for the district to continue Playground Access and other CREST programs and the City is certainly willing to sit down and find solutions to the problem.

Less than 24 hours later, Dilg announced during a continuation of this week’s budget study that SMMUSD Superintendent Ben Drati confirmed there is one-time funding available from the district that will allow programming to continue through this year while the City attempts to find a more permanent solution.

“That’s really fantastic news, because when we were thinking about how do we pull together the district, the city, the PTA, and hopefully some nonprofit partners, what we were immediately struck with is: ‘School starts in August, and we’re at the end of May,’” Agle said, detailing how such a short time-frame would make it hard to complete recruitments and other necessary preparations. “So, giving us time to work together as a community is critical. And I give our gratitude to the district for figuring out how to do that and giving us all time to work together.”

Agle added, “I just want to make sure we remember one thing that it’s really fantastic that the district’s able to step in for the next year and give us time to work on the future. And I just want us to remember that we may need, as the City, to provide some sort of gap funding… The school district got one time money; they likely aren’t in a position to fund for the long-term. So, we don’t need to deal with that in the first year of the budget that you’re adopting next month. But as we work through mid-year and year-end — as we see where revenues are going — we may have to have this discussion again.”

Brennon@smdp.com