[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.]
While Santa Barbara City Council term-limits turnover can resemble a musical-chairs game of policy leanings, tiers of staffers handle the day-to-day operations of the city — and City Administrator Jim Armstrong is at the top of that pyramid.
As the head of staff, he’s responsible for overseeing the annual budget process and acts as the chief executive officer for the city of Santa Barbara, directed in policy by the City Council, as all staff members are. With an annual salary of $231,276 plus benefits, he’s the highest-paid city employee.
Although he’s appointed rather than elected, Armstrong is politically savvy in terms of scheduling City Council agenda items. Controversial issues are punted to agendas rather than merely handled by staff, but generally avoided during election seasons, he said.
Armstrong has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Santa Barbara’s goings-on and often interjects into City Council discussions at the council’s weekly meetings.
The city administrator’s personal decision-making authority extends beyond other staff members, as Armstrong works with department heads to whittle down city budget options, and makes the final recommendations on behalf of staff to the City Council each year.
Within the budget process, Armstrong has implemented performance evaluations that focus not just on staff duties, but efficiency and quantifiable objectives.
It’s not about how many traffic stops the Police Department makes, but what the outcomes are and how the crime rate is affected, he said.
“I’m a big believer in you need to measure what people do, and you need to hold people accountable for results,” Arnstrong said. “It’s not just spending the money; it’s what you do with the money.”
Armstrong can approve contracts of up to $25,000 for professional services, such as consultants, sole-source contracts and litigation settlements of up to $25,000. In municipal budgeting, however, staff recommendations only go so far, and some pitches are received better than others.
With Santa Barbara’s financial troubles, Armstrong gets the dirty job more often than not, presenting cuts that are bound to be unpopular with someone.
As of yet, Armstrong said the City Council has not expressed a desire to cut significant services or get out of certain businesses, which limits the amount of structural changes the city can make. He’s looking at the big picture, since staff don’t want to be stuck making multimillion-dollar cuts each year.
“We can talk about merging departments, but re-shifting the boxes doesn’t generate a lot of savings,” Armstrong said.
One failed recommendation from the Fire Department included shutting down the East Sola Street station last year, but the City Council voted against it. By comparison, the Ventura City Council recently voted to close a fire station.
“We have seven fire stations in our city,” Armstrong said. “What would the impact be if we only had six? Would most people notice? Probably not.
“And yet, if you say let’s close a fire station, everybody would come unglued. We have to look at those kinds of things, especially if things get really bad. That’s where you test things, but the problem is it gets political ...”
From a management standpoint, the City Council wants his recommendations even if they’re unpopular, he said.
“The only way you can make decisions about what to include is to know what you’re not going to include,” he explained.
Labor negotiations and concessions are another hot topic, which Noozhawk will discuss further in future Santa Barbara Challenge articles, but city work keeps getting done amid the dollars-and-cents chaos. There have been about 80 employee positions eliminated in the last few years — most of them vacant — but no layoffs have occurred yet.
“I always tell our people, our best defense is a good offense,” Armstrong said. “Do your job and do it well. Don’t whine about not having enough resources.”