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A Question of Priorities

"Education is our number one priority." --Santa Monica City Council

"The check is in the mail." --American folklore

By Frank Gruber

For three years, since the school district's budget crisis of fiscal year 2000, the Santa Monica City Council has declared education to be its number one priority.

In fiscal 2000, actual expenditures under the departmental portion of the City's General Fund budget -- meaning the regular operations of the City, as opposed to capital projects or special departments like the bus system or the airport -- were $98.5 million.

In fiscal 2001, these regular expenditures increased to $106.5 million.

In fiscal 2002, these regular expenditures are expected to total $121.6 million.

A $23 million increase in two years -- 23.4 percent.

In fiscal 2000, the City made a "regular" contribution of $2.5 million to the school district and a special contribution of $2.1 million, for a total of $4.6 million.

In fiscal 2001, the City made a regular contribution of $2.5 million to the school district and no special contribution.

In fiscal 2002, the City increased its regular contribution to the school district to $3 million but made no special contribution.

Although the City also funds various social services and recreational programs located at school sites, you get the picture: in the two years after the City Council declared education to be its number one priority the day-to-day operations of the city increased by $23 million, but the City's support for the schools declined from $4.6 to $3 million.

You might wonder, where did the $23 million go? What needs did the City Council find to be more compelling than the schools?

While there was growth in every line of the budget, usually at or near 20 percent, the big ticket items were the Police Department, Planning and Community Development, and Community and Cultural Services, whose combined budgets increased, even accounting for off-setting transfers from special funds, by about $15 million.

As is well known, the City, responding to the downturn in the economy and the resulting decline in revenues, now wishes to tighten its belt, and has instituted cuts across the board.

The police, for instance, are cutting $307,459. Planning, in part by reducing the use of professional services and temps, expects to save $337,715. Community and Cultural Services is reducing the amount of its grants and eliminating the July 4 celebration to save $443,204.

Although the School District, which has little control over its revenues and can only raise taxes by asking the voters for an increase in the parcel tax, faces a budget shortfall more serious than the City's, the City has informed the District that the Council will have only about $1.5 million in discretionary funding to give the schools and all other supplicants when Council gives final approval to the budget Tuesday night.

In her letter to the City Council introducing the draft budget, City Manager Susan McCarthy made the following statement:

"The inevitability of a fiscal contraction was something you [City Council] and your staff anticipated and prepared for during the 1990's by dedicating a substantial portion of revenue growth to infrastructure improvements of a one-time nature. We did not allow ongoing municipal services to expand beyond a level that we believed to be sustainable. Adherence to sound budgeting principles and fiscal management positioned us to move through a 'normal' downturn of limited duration with little effect on the residents of Santa Monica."

Without implying that anyone, let alone the Santa Monica City Council or its staff, could have predicted Sept. 11 and its effect, these words are incredible considering the $23 million increase in the departmental budget between 2000 and 2002.

Consider this: between 2000 and 2002 the number of full-time equivalent employees in the Planning and Community Development Division increased from 80.5 to 100. Three more new employees are included in the 2003 "austerity" budget for purposes of expanded code enforcement.

Is this growth in the planning bureaucracy an example of "infrastructure improvements of a one time nature" and/or prudence in the light of the inevitable "fiscal contraction," or staff's inevitable response to all the demands a NIMBY City Council places on them to make life miserable for any private party who wants to build something -- whether a developer who wants to build apartments or a homeowner who wants to add a second story?

Or consider this: in fiscal 2001 City Council added sixteen new permanent positions to the police department for the purpose of traffic control downtown.

Overall, between 2000 and 2003, and not even including employment outside the General Fund, the City will have added about 90 full-time permanent positions. These positions cost on average about $70,000 each per year.

I hate to sound like a Republican, but I'm being reminded of the spending habits of drunken sailors.

The real problems of this city are not traffic congestion, unenforced conditional use permits, lack of parking, or restaurants that derive more than X percent of their sales from alcohol or put a sign on the street advertising their specials, but rather the problems that result from a poverty rate about equal to the national average.

The biggest problem is youth so alienated they shoot at each other.

Our police chief sensibly admits that the police can do little about the violence that plagues the Pico Neighborhood, yet, with crime at historically low levels, the council increases the police budget by more than $5 million in two years.

If the police can't do much about gang violence, give the schools the money and let them attack the root causes.

For every dollar the City gives the schools, the City will receive many back in the form of savings in social service, police, housing, and other programs. The schools did not create the social problems that make it expensive to give every child a good education, but they are the best investment we can make toward solving those problems.

City Council's real spending priorities the past few years can best be explained by the council members' fear of being bushwhacked at the polls (i) by the vocal and never satisfied no-growth element, and (ii) on the issue of public safety.

But Tuesday night when Council considers whether to fund those three new positions in the Planning Department, or to give more money to the schools, council members might consider the recent vote on Santa Monica College's bond issue.

The College received 70 percent approval despite the fact that two council members -- Richard Bloom and Ken Genser -- actively opposed the bond issue on NIMBY grounds, and two others -- Mayor Michael Feinstein and Mayor Pro Tem Kevin McKeown -- failed to support it.

School bonds and parcel taxes regularly pass in Santa Monica with 80 percent of the vote, while when the City tried to pass a bond issue a few years ago for the new public safety building, it only could get about 65 percent support.

For all the kowtowing to all the yammering whiners who berate the council and staff about every little inconvenience affecting their parched lives, the city is less popular than the schools, which day in and day out serve us all.


The Santa Monica City Council will consider adopting the 2002-03 budget at its next meeting, Tuesday, June 18, at 6:45 p.m.

Beginning with this column, "WHAT I SAY" will run on Mondays.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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