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Great Expectations or Spending Spree?

On Tuesday night, the City Council is expected to approve a $353.7 million budget that attempts to bridge a $16.1 million shortfall. Education advocates will once again call on the council to double the $3.5 million it gives to the schools every year. On the eve of the vote, The Lookout examines how other comparable cities spend their money. This is the first of a two-part series.

By Erica Williams
Staff Writer

June 16 -- Do Santa Monicans get more bang for their buck when it comes to basic city services? City officials contend they do, but a look at the operating budgets of several comparable municipalities seems to indicate otherwise.

An informal survey of area cities by The Lookout found that Santa Monica spends $500 to $900 more per resident on basic services than other full-service cities that are similarly well-managed and well-run and whose citizens have comparable incomes.

In the upcoming fiscal year, Santa Monica, with a population of 84,084, proposes to spend $160.1 million on its day-to-day operations -- services required to keep the city running, including salaries, supplies, small equipment and professional services. That works out to $1,906 per resident.

By comparison, Culver City, which has a population half the size of Santa Monica's, plans to spend $1,349 per capita, nearly $600 less than Santa Monica.

Pasadena, a city three times the geographic size of Santa Monica -- it spans 23 square miles -- has proposed a $172.6 million operating budget to serve its 138,800 residents, a population 50 percent larger than its oceanfront counterpart. Its per capita expense is $1,244.

And Torrance, a city of 137,946 residents spread out over 21 square miles, has budgeted $1,005 per resident, nearly $1,000 less than Santa Monica.

City
Population
Size
Med. Income
Oper. Bud.
Spent Per Capita
Torrance
137,946
21 sq. m.
$56,489
$ 138.649 M
$ 1,005
Pasadena
138,800
23 sq. m.
$35,674
$ 172.637 M
$ 1,244
Culver City
44,000
5 sq. m.
$51,792
$ 59.034 M
$ 1,349
Santa Monica
84,000
8.3 sq.m.
$50,714
$ 160.1 M
$ 1,906

City officials, as well as critics of the local government’s fiscal policies, caution against drawing easy conclusions from the figures, since each city has its unique problems and characteristics that help dictate how they spend their money.

"I think that what your survey reveals is interesting," said Mayor Richard Bloom. "I really think that it bears further analysis," he added, cautioning against "jumping to conclusions" about what the numbers mean.

"There are bound to be differences between communities, and I'm not sure what conclusion one can or should draw from the per resident dollar figure. It may be that it's not a particularly useful one.”

Kathy Dodson, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, called the findings "important," but, like Bloom, urged caution, saying, "we have to investigate this further."

"In these economic times we have to make sure we're getting the most bang for our buck," Dodson said. "Pasadena is comparable in terms of having a good school district, strong policing and similar amenities," she added. "We need to find out why they can do it for so much less."

HIGHER EXPECTATIONS

City officials cite a number of reasons for Santa Monica’s higher spending. Topping the list are the 7 million annual visitors from outside the county who, along with workers, swell Santa Monica’s resident population, especially during the summer.

"Comparing services by resident population is extremely misleading for Santa Monica," said Councilman Kevin McKeown. "Look instead at the level of services we are able to provide to youth, seniors and others that some cities under serve.

"Few if any cities have the added infrastructure impact of a quarter-million visitors per day and upward of half-a-million on summer weekends," McKeown added. "These visitors cost us money, but they also contribute to our local economy. Remember, the taxes to pay for these services are coming from visitors as well as residents."

In addition to serving more visitors, City officials argue that Santa Monicans expect more of their government when it comes to basic services than residents of most other cities.

"My gut feeling about Santa Monica, as I compare it to other communities in the region,” Bloom said, “is that residents here receive a lot of services across the board that residents in other communities don't see, or at least not on as high a level as they do here. Santa Monicans have high standards, and when we don't reach them they let us know."

City Manager Susan McCarthy agrees. "The demographics of our community are such that the expectations of the population are high," she said. "They expect their government to provide an excellent level of service."

“Some of it,” said Council member Pam O’Connor, “is a function of living in a wealthier part of the region where people have higher expectations. Because of the higher expectations for higher results and more scrutiny, there is a greater attention to detail.”

McCarthy attributed the per capita spending gap between the four cities to a number of illusive variables that are difficult to compare with raw numbers.

"Every city has a different set of local dynamics, and services are shaped and targeted to respond to those dynamics," McCarthy said. "You will find differences in the dedication of police services, after-school programs, recreation programs and social services funding."

Community and cultural services are one area where Santa Monica far outspends its counterparts. In fact, in the upcoming fiscal year Santa Monica plans to spend $14 million more than Pasadena, which earmarked $7.5 million for human services and recreation programs.

"We support social services to a large number,” said Councilman Bob Holbrook, a frequent critic on spending for homeless services. "If you don't give out grants to social service programs then you don't have to have City staff to administer them."

But critics question what the City gets for the money, especially the approximately $2 million a year it spends on homeless services, which does not include, for example, the cost of police and paramedic services.

"We're spending three times as much, and yet we have the worst problems," Dodson said. Those problems include homelessness and "very bad vagrant behavior," she said.

WASTE AND FAT

Critics of the City’s spending policies agree that municipal services are often excellent, though not necessarily better than those in comparable municipalities. What is different is the level of waste, they contend.

It’s one thing, critics argue, to meet the high expectations of the City’s residents; it’s another to go on a spending spree.

“It’s not a question of what you can afford, it’s what you really need,” said Neil Carrey, a member of the City’s Recreation and Parks Commission and a leading education advocate. “Other cities aren’t doing everything for everybody. It’s a question of priorities.”

The City’s attitude, Carrey said, is “I want and want, and when you get it, you don’t want to give it up. The question is, ‘Is the money going in the right direction?’”

The answer, Carrey contends, is no. He points to the presence of three staff members at routine Recreation and Parks Commission meetings, when one should be sufficient.

“We have to ask, ‘Are we getting our money’s worth after spending so much more than other cities,’” Carrey said. “There’s no doubt in my mind there’s a lot of waste and fat.”

For Tom Larmore, an attorney who helped lead opposition to the City’s failed Living Wage law, believes the City's claims of financial woe ring hollow.

"We have a huge City Hall and the City is incapable of getting things done," said Larmore, a partner in the law firm of HLKK, which frequently challenges the City’s land use polcies.

"Part of the problem is the amount of work given to the city attorney's office," Larmore said. "Other cities don't send their attorney's office on (wild) goose chases."

Larmore said he once received an email from a council member who claimed
challenging banks over their ATM fees -- a fight the City recently lost -- wasn't costing the City anything because it was handling it in house.

"That was astounding to me," said Larmore. "So I guess (Deputy City Attorney) Adam Radinski is working for free."

Some critics don't buy the arguments that Santa Monica residents demand more services and therefore get more. Instead of increasing fees (a key component of bridging the shortfall) and exploring raising taxes, Santa Monica should explore other options.

"We're always told that Santa Monicans demand the services, yet if we're getting the exact same services and we're spending $1,000 more -- that's not what Santa Monicans want," Dodson said.

"The city of Santa Monica is going to investigate raising taxes and fees, and I'm not sure that's necessary," she added.

Jorge Casuso contributed to this report.

Next: How Santa Monica and Pasadena spend their money. 
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