Officials Ponder Uses for Unspent $300k in Santa Monica

Monday, 13 Jun 2011, 1:15:00 AM

Parimal M. Rohit

On June 21, the Santa Monica City Council will likely adopt its biennial budget, a financial plan for the City that covers nearly $1.3 billion in expenditures for fiscal years 2011-2012 and 2012-2013. As part of the biennial budget adoption, the council will consider where to spend about $300,000 in one-time funds that have yet to be allocated.

While all City departments presented their specific budgets to the council during the three-day workshops and its members seemingly pleased with what they have seen so far, a little nip and tuck may well be endured between now and June 21, as council members determine where best to spend the currently unallocated $300,000 of one-time expenditures.

Kate Vernez, assistant to the city manager, stressed that remaining funds, which are part of the proposed biennial budget, are indeed one-time expenditures and, once allocated, would not be a repeating line item in future budgets. Accordingly, a few council members said there are a few things they would like to see accomplished.

“I think that the most important thing we can do with the one-time money is try and plug the gaps that the state budget may leave in important programs that help our most disadvantaged residents,” Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis said. “Also, because our ability to provide important services to seniors, youth, and economically disadvantaged individuals and families is dependent on maintaining a healthy and diverse local economy, I want to help our local businesses survive and thrive.”

Among the gaps Davis hoped to close with the remaining discretionary funds included monetary benefits for childcare services for working families. Davis added she was concerned about “the state’s proposed cuts to early childhood education and care,” and hoped the City would be able to step in and assist the working families in need.

“The proposed cuts will reduce full-time education and care opportunities for working families and actually may require struggling parents to quit their jobs because affordable full day care no longer will be available,” Davis said, adding she hoped to see how the state’s budget ultimately out before making a final determination of where to allocate the one-time expenditures. “It may be necessary for the City to consider how it might help preserve our local early childhood programs.”

Davis also stressed the value of early childhood programs to improving the state of education within Santa Monica. “As virtually every study that has looked at the issue agrees that quality early childhood programs are critical to closing the achievement gap in our schools and pay social dividends such as increased graduation rates and reduced crime,” she said.

Just the same, fellow Council member Kevin McKeown also believed at least some of the one-time expenditures in the biennial budget should be allocated to early education and childcare programs. Specifically, McKeown was worried about a possible shortage of full-day childcare in light of state budget cuts and how it would directly impact working parents and families.

“When resources are scarce, I always try to focus remaining funding on those among us who are most vulnerable and most in need. Working families with very young children should never be forced to choose between keeping their jobs and nurturing their kids, so I hope we set aside a considerable cushion in case the state further cuts aid to early education and child care,” he said.

Beyond childcare and education, Davis thought it would be beneficial to invest some of the available funds into the local economy.

“I (definitely) would like to see what happens with the state budget before committing the bulk of the one-time funds to any particular project (but) I also would consider directing some of the money to local business initiatives such as the ‘buy local’ campaign,” she said.

Without focusing on one particular issue, Mayor Richard Bloom told the Mirror, “Santa Monica’s economy is doing better ... [and the council has] done a good job being fiscally responsible over the past several years.”

He added that the City’s “no-cuts” budget proposal reflects its improving economy, but warned, “We’re not out of the woods completely and will need to make some adjustments over the next couple of years, principally to make certain that our employee health care and pension funds stay balanced.”

Bloom also commended both the council and City staff for establishing a biennial budget that honored “a history of not resorting to gimmicks and of keeping expenditures in line with revenue,” as well as one that “set aside a special reserve to help even out the down years.”

To that end, City Manager Rod Gould said both his office and all the other City departments have made every effort to frugally plan out Santa Monica’s spending during the next two years.

“We’re trying to deliver within a flat level of resources for the coming two years,” Gould said, adding the biennial budget was crafted with almost year-long input from members of both the community and council. “The Council has a pretty good handle on what most of our services and activities are and I think they are generally relieved we are not forcing them to make hard decisions about a reduction in services here, or cuts to staff there.”

The City’s biennial budget presentation includes a proposed budget for $647.1 million in the fiscal year 2011-12, and $624.2 million in the fiscal year 2012-13, respectively. The budget also accounts for $532.9 million and $535.5 million in revenues, respectively, for the same 24-month period.

With the City taking a new approach in seeking to adopt a two-year spending plan, both City staff and council members believe the process of establishing a biennial budget will actually make it easier for Santa Monica to be more efficient and fiscally responsible.

Similarly, McKeown said a biennial budget helps the City maintain a more focused vision of what major issues it will confront in the mid-range future, allowing both the council and staff members to make short-term adjustments in planning for the long-run.

“A two-year budget helps us to better anticipate and incorporate long-term trends, like increasing healthcare costs,” McKeown added. “We know even greater challenges lie ahead, so how we use the small remaining discretionary funds this year becomes even more important.”

If the Council adopts the Biennial Budget at its June 21 meeting, it will be made available online on the City’s website, smgov.net. As part of the plan in adopting a two-year budget, staff is expected to “return to council frequently, with mid-year and year-end reports and adjustments, and ask council to adopt an annual budget.”

Copyright © 2011 by Santa Monica Mirror. All rights reserved.