A task force comprised of City employees and residents is studying ways to trim City Hall's expenses over the next six years and help cover pension liabilities as revenues flatten, potentially creating budget deficits in the near future.
What the City Council ultimately decides could have significant impacts on Downtown Santa Monica, from eliminating free parking, public Wi-Fi and the Breeze Bikeshare Program to outsourcing management of the beloved farmers' markets.
The Budget Task Force, comprised of eight community members and seven members from the City workforce, are making recommendations to the city manager for addressing projected budget shortfalls. City Manager Rick Cole appointed each Budget Task Force member, and will ultimately decide which cost cutting and revenue generating measures to bring to the Council for final approval.
To curb projected budget shortfalls, the City has already cut expenditures and increased revenues by $18.8 million over two years. Employees have also been contributing more towards their retirement, and new employees will receive reduced benefits.
Goals for the Budget Task Force Include:
• Ensure the City can continue to provide excellent service and safety to the community.
• Help the City maintain fiscal balance in a changing economy.
• Recommend a budget reduction plan that allows the City to eliminate the threat of unfunded pension liability through an accelerated 13-year pay-down of unfunded pension liability, currently estimated at $448 million and save the City $106 million over 30 years.
After receiving an overview of the City's budgetary framework, constraints and proposed budget efficiency/reduction measures, the Budget Task Force has been evaluating ideas generated by City departments and make recommendations for $1.5 million in budget reductions in the upcoming fiscal year's budget, and a minimum of $2.5 million in reductions for 2021 through 2025.
The task force has recommended retaining fee waivers for building and safety review and planning review for childcare and affordable housing, but opted to raise fees for other projects before the City. Members also voted to eliminate 90-minutes of free parking in downtown structures, reducing the grace period to 60 minutes in year one, and then to 30 minutes in year two.
Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. and its Board of Directors has strongly advocated for retaining the 90-minutes grace period as an incentive for residents to visit their downtown to run errands.
"At a time when we are going to property owners and asking them to invest in the Third Street Promenade for the good of our downtown and the city as a whole, we don't feel they should be trying to balance their budget on the backs of the customers who drive downtown revenues," said Kathleen Rawson, DTSM's chief executive officer.
It is believed that by increasing parking rates more people will opt to take public transit or alternative means of getting downtown. And that is true. Survey data has shown that only half of downtown visitors arrive in a private vehicle. But as fewer people park their cars in downtown structures, less revenue is generated. Rates would have to rise considerably to generate the same amount of money for the City that has been collected in years past.
"Basic supply and demand would suggest that when fewer people are buying something, the reasonable response is not to raise the rate on those people who are buying it," Rawson added.
Before any decision is ultimately made, DTSM has called on a complete and transparent economic impact analysis of reducing the grace period and previous increases to parking rates. The board also wants a plan to make it easier and cheaper for employees to be able to park after employers raised concerns that they cannot retain talented workers. DTSM would also like to see the creation of a parking validation program that downtown businesses could participate in, mainly movie theaters and restaurants.
And add alternatives for Santa Monica residents to access downtown easily and efficiently.
Another significant area of concern for DTSM is the possible outsourcing of the management of the downtown farmers markets. The task force advised raising the amount farmers pay to sell their goods at the Wednesday and Saturday markets. While still lower than what nearby markets charge farmers, the new fee could lead to price increases for consumers. If the council ultimately decides to outsource management and coordination of the market, DTSM would explore the possibility of taking that role on. At the very least, it would like to have a say in which company is ultimately chosen. The farmers markets play a significant role in shaping downtown's identity and DTSM would not want to see the quality of the experience deteriorate.
DTSM is also advocating for the retention of free City Wi-Fi in highly trafficked public spaces like Third Street Promenade, and would like the City to relax rules on corporate sponsorship of major events such as the Santa Monica Pier concert series, which gives locals and those living in nearby communities another reason to visit downtown and its businesses. By becoming more open to corporate sponsorships, the City could reap the rewards of a more robust calendar of events and allow partners like DTSM to produce higher-quality experiences for locals and visitors.
For the Breeze Bike Share Program, DTSM acknowledges the challenges the program faces as competition from private mobility companies like Bird and Lime has cut into Breeze's revenues, making it more difficult for the City to run the program at a high level. DTSM supports the City's efforts to ensure Breeze is affordable for people of all income levels and would want that to continue.
"But more so it's about the public right-of-way," said Steven Welliver, DTSM's deputy chief executive. "If Breeze goes away, can we trust that there will be enough regulatory control to ensure equity, not just in access, but in how the devices are distributed throughout the city and how our sidewalks and other public spaces are used by these companies. We need to be concerned about how people are able to move around town. We need to make sure our sidewalks are accessible for those who are disabled or who choose to walk."
When Bird scooters first appeared on the scene there were many complaints about the devices blocking handicap ramps, sidewalks, driveways and bus stops.