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Council Gets Input for Budget Windfall

By Ann K. Williams
Staff Writer

February 16 -- Seasoned City Council members and a new City Manager put the brakes on a money giveaway as they took a look at this year’s budget Tuesday night, though a few groups got a helping hand, financial and otherwise.

The City put off spending any windfalls in this year’s budget for at least 30 days until new City Manager Lamont Ewell has a chance to review the mid-year accounting, which shows increased revenues thanks to an improving economy and a one-time $1.5 million license fee payoff by the State.

The extent of this year’s leftover money is uncertain. With the state windfall, staff is predicting a $5.5 million increase in revenues. However, about $3 million will be spent on salaries, document “digitizing,” fire dispatch costs, fuel expenses for the Big Blue Bus and other ongoing expenses, leaving about $2.5 million up for grabs.

More than 40 speakers lined up, many with hat in hand, while neighborhood organizations, boards and commissions had sent stacks of mail to the council detailing their ideas and wish lists.

After listening for nearly two hours, Council members Pam O’Connor and Ken Genser clarified the purpose of the meeting.

However much money will ultimately be allocated from this year’s revenues, the reason for soliciting public input is to get a sense of the “general trends, not specific programs,” Genser explained. This understanding can guide the Council as it prepares next year’s budget.

O’Connor agreed and cautioned against letting the annual budget review degenerate.

“If we’re going to pit one organization against another, this whole process becomes well, get people out here for your favorite cause,” O’Connor said.

The problem is, the council may become “limited” by the picture they get, O’Connor said.

That said, several trends emerged from the public’s spoken and written input, O’Connor concluded.

Parks -- specifically dog parks -- were a hot item, as nine speakers implored the council to beautify and improve existing dog parks and let their canine companions “run free” on the beach.

The arts got a vote of confidence from several groups, most notably the 18th Street Arts Center. Four speakers from the 17-year-old arts community located in the Pico neighborhood asked for city staff’s help figuring out how to refinance a $2 million note. They’d also like to expand their facilities.

Social services got their say, from the Childcare Task Force to the Pico Youth and Family Center to Meals on Wheels. So did public education, as PTA Council President Laura Rosenbaum and Community for Excellent Public Schools (CEPS) co-Chair Shari Davis thanked the City for its generous support of the school district.

And, of course, traffic and parking were high on the list of neighborhood concerns. The traffic gridlock seizing the City on Valentine’s night seemed tailor-made to illustrate the need for a better traffic plan, as well as alternative transportation and energy sources, and was cited by more than one advocate.

Former Mayor Nat Trives made his annual appearance plugging the Santa Monica Symphony while praising the City for its part in making the recent Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration “so warm and gratifying.”

He proposed a symphony concert celebrating the anniversary of the opening of the Martin Luther King Jr. Auditorium at the library courtyard next year.

After hearing from the public, the council decided to take immediate action in response to the pleas of the dog “guardians,” the 18th Street Art Complex and Meals on Wheels.

Two motions were crafted by Genser calling for staff to:

  • Work with the 18th Street Arts Center to explore ways to refinance their debt and/or redevelop their property,
  • Return with an item funding Meal’s on Wheels new facility -- $24,000 is what the organization asked for -- out of the council’s discretionary fund,
  • Report back about the status of the Santa Monica dog beach, and
  • Return with an item to allow the council to authorize a letter of support for state legislation calling for a pilot dog beach at Dockweiller Beach.

Both motions passed unanimously with six votes. Council member Herb Katz was absent.

Although she supported the motion, O’Connor did want to make it clear that she needs more information about the effect a dog beach on the water quality in Santa Monica Bay.

Ewell will get back to the council in a month with his findings.

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