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Paying for Squeaky Wheel Government

By Frank Gruber

"Perhaps the greatest impact of the new economic and fiscal situation following a resource- and service-rich decade, will be mustering the discipline necessary to continuously and closely prioritize expenditures and services, to scrupulously evaluate the costs and benefits of current programs and to resist calls to throw money at problems." -- From Santa Monica's City Manager Susan McCarthy's message to the City Council transmitting this year's budget.

It's good someone in City government sees the forest, but even the redoubtable Ms. McCarthy sees only part.

Santa Monica's problem is not throwing money at problems, it's throwing money at non problems.

The school district had a real problem -- deteriorating schools. We voted twice to throw money at the problem, and now our school buildings are worthy of their purpose.

Our sewers are in bad shape. I'm happy the City is throwing money at them -- even if I wonder why they repaved so many streets in recent years if they were just going to rip them up again.

Government needs to spend money, but the reason we have a huge budget deficit is that our City Council throws grease at squeaky wheels.

I can't get over the fact -- and I'm going to write about it again -- that the City increased its permanent payroll about eight hundred thousand dollars to direct traffic downtown.

Before I get into how that happened, let me say that although I consider directing traffic at intersections downtown to be generally fruitless and a waste of money, when I say so I mean no disrespect for the people who actually stand in the middle of those intersections -- a job one wouldn't wish on anyone and one which our traffic officers perform, as is generally the case in Santa Monica, in a well-trained and professional manner.

Although as with the repaving, why three of them were standing around the pedestrian crosswalk on Fourth south of Santa Monica Boulevard Saturday around five, I have no idea.

It's not easy to determine how much the City spends on directing traffic downtown. The amount is part of a general traffic services budget, which in turn is part of a $6.5 million piece of the police budget called "Office of Special Enforcement."

To get an accurate number, I contacted Police Chief James T Butts, Jr., who informed me that the fourteen employees the City hired when the City Council voted to do something about downtown traffic -- ten traffic service officers, two motorcycle officers, one communications operator and one staff assistant -- cost the City just under $800,000 in salaries and fringes.

Chief Butts also made a strong case that his department was spending the money the City Council appropriated prudently.

For instance, to maximize flexibility, instead of hiring specialized employees only to direct traffic, the Police Department combined the new employees with the existing pool of parking checkers (there were originally 21), and trained them all both to give parking tickets and direct traffic.

It was also the chief's view that by hiring new employees on a regular basis, the City was saving at least as much as it would otherwise be spending on police overtime to direct traffic on, for instance, busy summer days.

So what's my problem?

My problem is that the question is not whether the City is spending money well, but whether the money is well-spent.

Santa Monica doesn't have enough money to throw $800,000 at a problem that doesn't bother many Santa Monicans.

What? Isn't traffic Santa Monica's biggest problem? Won't downtown customers and tourists stop coming if they see brake lights on Fourth Street?

Those are the reasons the City Council gave for spending the money, and it's true that the regulars at public hearings complain a lot about traffic, but when the City conducts its annual residents' survey, fewer than 20 percent of Santa Monicans mention traffic as one of the "most important issues facing the city."

It's true that when asked specifically about traffic, most Santa Monicans, along with most people in the modern world, describe traffic as a serious problem. But when Santa Monicans complain about traffic, they usually complain about traffic in their own neighborhoods and to slow-going east-west arterials and north-south cross streets, not traffic congestion near the Pier on a summer weekend -- something Santa Monicans know how to avoid.

In the last residents' survey, as opposed to the eighteen percent who mentioned traffic as a major problem, 62 percent of Santa Monicans reported they use the parks. I suspect that if it came to spending $800,000 a year to direct traffic downtown or to maintain parks, most Santa Monicans would choose the parks.

But what about downtown? Don't we need all those customers to pay for everything? Sure, our economy is important, and if the City had approved Target the City -- like Pasadena which just opened its second Target -- would have another million or so in revenues, but there's no indication that traffic scares customers away.

All the popular spots in Southern California have lots of traffic. Even on a weekend, Santa Monica is relatively easy to get to, into, and out of -- no worse, certainly, than Hollywood or Universal City.

If you want to avoid traffic, you can spend your weekend in downtown L.A., but few people do.

But what about those crazy summer weekends? With the recent weather it's hard to imagine people will ever come to the beach again, but even I admit that there are some days when a traffic cop is needed at Ocean and Colorado. And no one wants to waste police overtime on traffic control.

It's dangerous for a columnist to make operational suggestions, but might this be where those 21 original employees of the traffic division come in? It was a great idea to cross-train them in directing traffic, as it's smart to have the flexibility to use them for both purposes.

When confronted with the issue of what to do with weekend traffic, the City Council could have avoided hiring new employees by making do with the employees the City already had. ("Making do" -- what a concept.)

On busy beach days, rather than field a full force of parking checkers to enforce preferential zones far from the beach, maybe go light on parking enforcement and heavy on directing traffic?

There are many other examples of throwing grease on squeaky wheels, but my favorites involve planning.

In the residents' survey, only eighteen percent of Santa Monicans gave the City's code enforcement efforts a negative rating, and only thirteen percent mentioned growth as one of the city's "most important issues."

But no wheel squeaks like the no-growth wheel. The City over two years increased the budget of the Planning Department by millions, and hired nearly 20 new employees, with special emphasis on code enforcement and to deal with the myriad new ordinances and emergency moratoriums and studies and discretionary reviews City Council mandated to impede growth.

These are the reasons why Santa Monica's deficit is sixteen million dollars and Pasadena's is four and why it's annoying to hear City Council members bemoan the economy, point to their pink ribbons, and whine about how they wish they had more money for schools and other good things.

They spent it.

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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