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It's Only Money

(Please read this CORRECTION)

By Frank Gruber

To appreciate how hard it is to get two-thirds of the votes in any election, consider that only on a couple occasions has a presidential candidate even approached two-thirds of the vote. Sixty percent is a landslide.

Nonetheless, until recently school bonds and parcel taxes passed easily in Santa Monica and Malibu, garnering up to 80 percent of the vote. Even in March 2002, Santa Monica College's bond issue passed with nearly 70 percent.

Then last November, EE, the $300 parcel tax, failed with 61 percent.

With a tremendous effort to identify "yes" voters and get them to vote, Measure S, the new parcel tax, just passed with barely the required two-thirds.

It would be reassuring to think that the recent caution of local voters merely reflects the bad economy, or the anxious discontent that has overtaken the country since 9/11, but there's a local angle.

Among the flood of emails I received last week praising my column on "right wing nihilists" -- actually, I did receive one -- was one from a reader who thought that my arguments demonizing the opponents of Measure S were "one dimensional."

This reader happens to be one of the more perceptive people in Santa Monica (i.e., he usually agrees with me), so I didn't take his words lightly. I won't identify him, because he works for an organization somewhat dependent on the City, but he's a renter and on a budget. This is some of what he had to say, after telling me he was voting in favor of the parcel tax:

"But I do understand what the 'NO' campaign is drawing on. ... I don't think its adherents should be written off generally as cold hearted.

"Imagine someone who loves renting in Santa Monica. They're gladly struggling to do just that, both tolerant of and at the same time overexposed to the homeless they perceive as surrounding them, working through nonstop city construction projects and dealing with these frustrations because this is nonetheless a very special place to live.

"Then they are hit with the argument that the city spends millions on homeless services that keep those people exactly where they are, right outside the door. They're told the city's social agenda has swallowed vast amounts of money that could have been spent on schools. They're told the city spends endlessly on projects which in the end ... no one seems to want, again expending money that might have gone to the school district. ...

"Finally they are told that 'S' is going to divide the burden of supporting the schools equally by three, renters, the visually opulent businesses of Santa Monica and Malibu and the homes in the Malibu hills and north of Montana. It's suggested that if renters were to say no, 'I'm not cleaning up this mess,' that the city would have to reallocate funds from perhaps homeless services.

"It's an easy argument to get caught up in. And it isn't going to go away with 'S.'"

I'll stick to my guns about the cynicism of the right-wing nihilists who tarred the schools with the City's brush, but they would not have got so much traction if the perception wasn't out there that City Hall is out of control.

I'm not going to bash every decision the City Council has made. Certainly their capital spending has been good, notwithstanding all the construction, and we'll ultimately be happy with the results.

But the City Council has done us liberals a great disservice, because they did just what conservatives blame liberals for doing -- spending and taxing.

It's hard to exaggerate how irresponsible the spending has been. The City Council thought the boom would never end -- certainly not in Santa Monica, as if Santa Monica were separated from the rest of the world.

They increased the operating budget by nearly 25 percent in two years.

They hired myriad new employees to do useless tasks to make certain noisy constituencies happy. Sixteen, for instance, to direct traffic downtown.

The worst example is the Planning and Community Development Department. Its budget increased $5.24 million, more than 70 percent, between the 2000 and 2003 fiscal years. The City Council hired sixteen more planners and building and safety and code enforcement personnel.

Why? The City Council and the planners will say it's to keep up with "massive over development," but that's a myth. Since 2000, building permit fees in the aggregate have remained virtually the same and the number of plan checks and the total value of plan checks have declined, respectively, nineteen and fifteen percent.

No -- these new employees exist only to keep up with busy work City Council members create to flatter their own obsessions.

All these employees have pension plans, too, and in the glow of the stock market, the City Council increased pensions, and now with the market down, we have a huge bill for that.

All those employees need places to work, so the City needs to rent more office space.

But as for you out there who blame the homeless and those who try to help them for the City's problems, be advised that the increases in the grants for human services over the same time period are relatively trivial -- about a million dollars.

Another thing -- City Council fought development so vociferously that Santa Monica has lost forever the benefits of the investment that naturally accompanies a boom. The Target store alone would now be contributing at least a million to the budget.

Staff now proposes, among other things, that to balance the budget the City stop cleaning parks on weekends or holidays.

In the midst of a gang war, the City will cut evening drop-off hours at the Police Activities League.

Is it any coincidence that the City will cut the number of outside-contracted parks maintenance workers but not the number of regular staff? Is working for the City of Santa Monica a lifetime entitlement?

What is more important, to keep our parks well maintained and to reach out to disadvantaged kids -- or (i) to hire someone in a uniform to wave at traffic at Fourth and Santa Monica, or (ii) to prosecute innocuous code violations, or (iii) research more emergency ordinances, or (iv) to revise -- again? -- design standards and zoning for downtown?

Waving at traffic in downtown Santa Monica. Originally employed on a temporary basis to direct traffic during construction of the Transit Mall, human traffic signals have now been made a permanent part of the payroll.

To top it off, staff recommends that in 2004 the City should seek a tax increase.

About ten years ago the City had a financial crisis, and the City Council enacted a regressive ten percent tax on utility bills. This tax now pulls in about $28 million per year.

Did City Council suspend this tax in whole or in part during the boom? Did the City Council divert the money to the schools, which needed it? Did the City Council put the money in the bank for the inevitable rainy day?

No. The City Council did none of these prudent things. Every year City Council spent the money, hiring employees and renting offices and increasing pensions. So that now when there's not enough money to clean our parks, they plan is to go to the voters for an increase in sales and hotel-occupancy taxes.

Yes for the schools. Always.

Unless the City changes its priorities, however, this is one liberal who won't be voting yes on any tax proposal from City Hall.

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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