The Santa Monica City Council completed a two-day study session last week that featured a review of the City Manager’s Proposed FY 2021-23 Biennial Budget and concluded with City Council naming the priorities it wishes to see incorporated into the Final Biennial Budget, which will return to Council for adoption on June 22.

The FY 2021-23 Biennial Budget comes on the heels of pandemic-induced revenue losses totaling tens of millions of dollars and a required restructuring that included the loss of more than 400 staff members. Thanks to the painful but necessary budget actions taken throughout the last year, the FY 2021-22 General Fund budget is $349.5 million, almost $100 million less than the FY 2018-19 General Fund.

Before his unanticipated retirement last week, Councilmember Kevin McKeown commended staff for bringing forward a Biennial Budget that reflects no deficit – either now or in the associated five-year forecast.

“It’s just phenomenal that you’re so on the money about being out of money,” McKeown said before his peers spent hours this week considering public comment and weighing the benefits of different programs and City offerings.

With finances so tight, Council struggled to balance new allotments and cuts.

“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,” Parra said during the discussion.

But Director of Finance Gigi Decavalles-Hughes noted this year’s budget is strapped as a result of the pandemic and acknowledged there may be a disconnect will remain between City resources, which have been reduced as a result of the pandemic, and community expectations, which have not.

“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.”

After hours of discussion and input from department leaders and residents from throughout the City, Council agreed that it was most important to focus on a return of street sweeping to a weekly frequency; increase resources to address homelessness, which includes the continuation of multi-disciplinary street teams and the addition of a staff member in the Human Services Division who will support homelessness efforts. Council also called for staff to find ways to maintain the Reed Park Ambassador program through Downtown Santa Monica, Inc., implement a park planner for a limited two-year period who can support existing and new park spaces, and dedicate one-time funds to upgrade a generator that would facilitate the return of Downtown Santa Monica’s seasonal ice rink.

Councilmembers also expressed support for the addition of a Library Program Specialist as well as Youth and Family Services specialists, and and asked staff to find out ways to fund additional enhancements to library services.

Mayor Sue Himmelrich concluded the study session thanking staff for their hard work.

“I want to say that I received phone calls from people who used to work for the city when we were doing this budget telling me that we should just leave it the way it is, keep going and we would be fine,” Himmelrich said. “Well, let me just say, had we not done what we did, we would not be fine. We would be in a big, fat hole that we aren’t getting any funds to bail ourselves out of. So, I am so grateful to you for doing this work and for hanging in there with us.”

This week’s study session did not feature a vote, but Council is expected to convene a public hearing on June 22, to consider, receive public comment, make revisions to, and adopt the first year and approve the second year of the Biennial Budget.