Pickleball: Public comment during the budget discussions was almost entirely focused on Pickleball. Matthew Hall

Santa Monica City Council unanimously adopted its biennial budget for Fiscal Years 2021–2023 Wednesday, which allocates funding that will allow for what officials called an equitable and inclusive economic recovery in the city.

The FY 2021-2022 budget totals $707.8 million while the FY 2022-23 Budget is $598.9 million, which is a difference of $2.3 million and $1.1 million, respectively, from what was presented to Council on May 25. Both entail allocations to enhance safety services on the Santa Monica Pier, Colorado Esplanade, and beach area during busy summer weekends, as well as funds to support the formation of a possible BID on the Santa Monica Pier and a rent abatement program that seeks to support small Santa Monica businesses.

But how much funding should be dedicated to programs relating to homelessness, neighborhood groups and pickleball dominated most of the discussion during this week’s seven-hour meeting.

“I’m concerned that we haven’t done as much as we can to make sure that our homeless people in our city are repetitively getting questioned about, ‘How can we get them care? How can we help them?’” Councilmember Phil Brock said. “I can point to people all around the city that have been neglected… not by any of us specifically… but I want to know how we can give them more assistance?”

Councilmember Oscar de la Torre said he’s also witnessed a crisis in the streets.

“Just in the past four days, three days, I’ve seen an individual on Pico Boulevard covered up in a blanket, you know; no one’s interacted with him.

And I’m assuming with the staffing and all that we have that someone’s going to eventually contact him,” de la Torre said. But nobody has, he added. “So we see this, we see the deterioration, you know, in terms of crime and people shooting each other and killing each other… we’re seeing this escalation going on and the summer just started.”

De la Torre continued on to say that in order to pass the budget, everybody in the room has to feel their values are reflected in the document and he didn’t necessarily feel his were since Finance Director Gigi Decavalles-Hughes said she was unable to find an additional $20,000 in the budget to give to neighborhood groups.

“We have to pass this budget, and so we need to make sure we get more yeses than noes. And when I make a suggestion to say, ‘Can we find $20,000?’ and our chief financial officer says, ‘I can’t. I can’t find $20,000 for you in the budget,’ then it makes me feel like, ‘Whoa, hold on here… We’re trying to solve problems. My job is to listen to the residents.’”

Both Interim City Manager Lane Dilg and Mayor Sue Himmelrich took issue with the statement as they highlighted how the process has been ongoing for more than six weeks.

“This finance team has been working for a very long time to try to answer questions, to try to deal with your priorities, so I do want to resist any criticism of staff not being able to produce, in this moment, amorphous amounts of money,” Dilg said.

“That’s my whole thing,” de la Torre quickly responded. “We’re not asking for a whole lot. It’s not a million dollars.”

Himmelrich reiterated the budget is a zero-sum game though.

“I don’t think you can just say, ‘I want to do this,’ without saying where you want to take it away from,” Himmelrich said, and Mayor Pro Tem Kristin McCowan agreed.

“What is the thing that you came to this meeting prepared to take $40,000 away from? Because we’re at that point where we don’t have the ability to say, ‘Staff can you look into this for another week?’” McCowan asked, referring to Council’s need to pass a budget since it’s set to take effect a little more than a week from the meeting. “These are all increases to what we knew was a zero-sum budget… If we’re going to increase something, we have to take it away from something else. And yet, no one was suggesting the things to take it away from.”

McCowan added she has held conversations with state representatives so she knows additional funding in the range of $5- to $10-million could still arrive in Santa Monica’s coffers. So, some programs might simply have to wait to receive their due.

“Why vote if we can’t make any suggestions?” de la Torre asked. “You want us to come here and vote yes, right?”

Himmelrich dismissed the notion, stating, “Over the last few weeks, everybody was supposed to be looking at all of these documents talking to staff who set up many meetings with us and saying, if I wanted to do this, where could I take it away from?’”

Like de la Torre, Brock was adamant that the City should find a way to restore funding to programs like West Coast Cares.

“Look, I hear what Mayor Pro Tem McCowan is saying and I agree with that…. but I don’t believe we’re doing enough,” Brock said, making a motion to fund West Coast Cares by defunding the City Attorney’s Office.

Interim City Attorney George Cardona asked where specifically the cuts should come from.

“We have a division that prosecutes crime, so I assume you don’t want me to cut that. I have a division that handles tenant issues… I have a division that basically brings in money by pursuing Consumer Affairs actions and consumer fraud against the residents of Santa Monica and that helps out tenants in Santa Monica by pursuing actions for tenant harassment,” Cardona said, before Brock interrupted to note the city would be cutting the equivalent of one-third of a staff member.

“What I don’t want is for everybody to assume that we can do everything we are doing with less money,” Cardona said. “And I also want everybody to remember that in May of last year we cut $1.9 million from our budget and, at the time, we told everybody, ‘If you cut $1.9 million from our budget, it’s going to decrease our services.’ It hasn’t decreased our services; what has happened is everybody is expecting exactly the same things from us and our people are working incredibly long hours to do essentially the same thing…. Another $70,000 doesn’t sound like much on top of 1.9 million… but I’m telling you, again, we cannot keep doing everything that you want us to do if you cut that money.”

Brock said he understood but if he has to choose between helping people on the ground or helping employees in administrative capacities in the City Attorney’s Office then he’s going to help people on the ground.

But Cardona pushed back, stating, “That’s not the case. We’re in court prosecuting crimes. We’re in court taking actions to help tenants and consumers. We’re, in every department in the city, providing legal advice that gets everything done… Now, if you want to cut that’s fine, but you have to tell us what you don’t want us to do.”

De la Torre then turned his attention to Decavalles-Hughes.

“You know, a fair way to do it is if our Chief Financial Officer stepped up, saw the conflict that we’re having right here, and found a way to resolve the conflict so that we can move forward.”

McCowan and Himmelrich said that is an unfair request because few people work harder than Dilg and Decavalles-Hughes.

Dilg added staff has attempted to find a middle ground. “But if every time staff hears you and tries to be responsive, we end up with the budget effectively being held hostage unless we can come up with more,” she said, “then it gives no incentive to actually do the work to try to listen to you and get in the budget, what you want in the budget.”

Cardona suggested additional one-time cuts to his office, but McCowan said Council was not going about the process the correct way.

“You’ve basically got a gun to our head saying, ‘Figure it out.’ I don’t think that’s appropriate,” McCowan said, before de la Torre again asked if newly elected officials are supposed to vote yes without asking any questions.

“That is not what happens here,” McCowan said. “This has been a process. The fact that tonight… we brought up the fee study that has been in our inboxes, in our public documents, since May 10 — and brought them up as if it was the first time we saw it, and raised major questions, literally in the 11th hour, that is no one else’s fault but our own. And so, no, I am not willing to do this.”

A motion made by Brock and seconded by Torre to defund a portion of the City Attorney’s office failed shortly after McCowan’s statement as a result of an abstention by Councilmember Christine Parra and no-votes from Himmelrich, McCowan and Councilmember Gleam Davis.

Council would vote again on a separate motion and unanimously pass a budget that includes a two-year Community Response Unit program pilot focused on homelessness response, like Brock wanted, and then Council later agreed to provide $20,000 in additional funding to neighborhood groups from Council discretionary funding, like de la Torre wished for.

All six Councilmembers also agreed prior to the conclusion of this week’s meeting to address community concerns regarding pickleball access by allowing tennis courts to open one hour earlier at 7 a.m. and promised to restripe the courts at Memorial Park this summer. Officials added Wednesday an approved Park Planner position will address longer-term access to pickleball in Santa Monica.