[Noozhawk’s note: This is one in a series of articles on Noozhawk’s Santa Barbara Challenge, our public-engagement project on the city of Santa Barbara’s budget. Related links are below.]
When Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider ran her first city council race seven years ago, she sat through many of the 2003 budget hearings to brush up on some of the issues.
“It was a great City Government 101 course,” she said.
The biggest issue came up during a Parks & Recreation Department budget meeting, where raising ballroom dancing fees by a dollar was before the council.
“There were 30 people in there saying ‘We won’t come on Friday nights if you pass this’,” recounted Schneider, sitting on the sofa in her City Hall office.
“I remember thinking, ‘OK, if this is what’s causing the issues, we’re doing OK as a city’,” she laughed.
Times have changed.
“Now we’re faced with weighing major issues, like browning out a fire station,” she told Noozhawk last year.
The city eventually closed its $9 million budget gap, in large part through negotiations with labor groups. Making sometimes painful cuts is the responsibility of the City Council. During the budget process, city staff present their recommendations for the coming year, and the seven-member council, of which Schneider represents one vote, can approve or deny with a majority vote.
And ever since she was sworn in as mayor in January 2010, Schneider has faced some tremendous budget challenges. Every expense is scrutinized. Even upgrading the city’s telephone system (which does represent a sizable sum) was under the microscope when Noozhawk spoke with her last year.
“People are saying, ‘Why in this budget year do you need to spend on this?’” she said. “It’s because we’ve waited so long to do it that the alternative is our phones may not work.”
Looking over the last couple of years, Schneider said that the city has employed a lot of “one-time fixes,” some of which “have been done over multiple years, that we can’t do forever.”
“There’s only so much maintenance deferral you can do before things start costing more money,” she said.
The constraints don’t just come from challenges at the municipal level. The state of California can — and does — borrow from its cities during times of “severe financial hardship” and doesn’t have a great record of paying back its debts.
Last year, Santa Barbara was forced to write a check for $6.8 million to the state, and will likely be dinged for another $1.4 million this year.
“That’s a new police station right there that we just gave to the state,” Schneider said.
It’s hard for most people to understand the effect that cuts in the state and county budgets will have on cities. Santa Barbara County alone is facing a $40 million shortfall, and when it inevitably cuts something like social services to deal with its deficit, Schnieder says, it always has a ripple effect.
“Fewer people getting general relief or health care means they’re on State Street panhandling, or more emergencies happen because the preventative stuff isn’t there anymore,” she said.
Schneider said she’s hearing that many other cities are having some of the same issues as Santa Barbara, but some are different, because they aren’t a “full-service” city.
Santa Barbara has an airport, a harbor, and runs its own water and wastewater districts, making the city budget more complex, as opposed to some cities that contract out or work with a special district. There are regulations on what funds can be used for what, and Schneider said that can sometimes lead to angst about why city leaders make the budget decisions they do.
“I think we’re very accessible with the things we do, but people have to know where to go,” she said.
In addition to the yearly challenges of breaking even, there are long-term policy issues the city must address, like the cost of public employee retirements. How much the city contributes to its employees’ retirements depends on state law, but also on what the labor groups can negotiate. A plunge in the stock market means the city will need to contribute even more to make up for the loss, and Schneider and city finance staff estimate that Santa Barbara could face a $4 million hit in the next two years.
“People are going to say, ‘Everything’s fine; what do you mean you’re still in a fiscal crisis?’” she said. “We’re trying to think long term and figure out what we can do to mitigate that cost.”