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Santa Barbara’s Budget a Complex Balancing Act

Unpacking next year's proposed $273 million budget reveals an intricate web of negotiations and positioning

[Noozhawk’s note: Over the next six weeks, Noozhawk will be taking a closer look at the city of Santa Barbara’s budget process in an advance of a unique and innovative public engagement project we will be undertaking with our partners, Common Sense California and UserVoice.com. Click here for more information on our project.]

Slashing millions of dollars from municipal budgets is a sign of the times, and city staffers in Santa Barbara are getting plenty of experience as each year’s bottom line becomes harder to get straight.

For the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, $10.8 million was cut to adopt a budget that was thought to be balanced. However, an additional $2.9 million had to be trimmed in November and a further deficit of $3.7 million — along with the threat of closing a fire station — was revealed in February.

Next year’s budget looks no better, with each general fund department presenting 10 percent to 12 percent reductions to the City Council to consider, and the necessary cuts will likely have noticeable service impacts for the public. Proposals to shift some projects or services to non-general fund departments, such as the Redevelopment Agency, are under consideration to maintain funding.

Santa Barbara’s 2010-11 recommended budget includes $248.5 million of operating funds and a capital budget of $24.8 million, according to the city’s Web site. Click here for the budget document.

The budget includes the general fund, special revenue funds and enterprise funds, all for a city with a population of 90,300. As a comparison, the 2000 adopted budget, including capital, was about $129 million without using reserves, according to the two-year financial plan for fiscal years 2000 and 2001.

For the current year, there are 1,023 full-time employees and 23.2 part-timers listed in the city’s documents. Among each department’s proposed cuts for 2010-11 are layoffs, the elimination of vacant positions or redistribution of employees and work time — for a total decrease of 41 positions.

Proposed cuts by the departments included in the recommended budget only add up to $5.6 million, and additional budget options — many of which are more brutal — are an additional $2.7 million and 17.5 positions.

Other fixes include reducing training and overtime as well as many one-time remedies, such as delaying equipment replacement.

What may be most evident to the public — besides the likelihood of longer wait times or possibly higher fees for some services — are proposed changes to services like closing the Central and Eastside libraries on Mondays, ending graffiti abatement on private property, closing the sobering center, and suspending stipends for city boards and commissions.

Some “additional budget option” eliminations cut even deeper into the city’s essentials, such as canceling closed captioning or Spanish translation for City Council meetings.

Negotiations with labor unions have been spotlighted throughout the budget process, since city staff have said concessions are needed to avoid many layoffs and balance this year’s budget. Only the police union is required to renegotiate its contract at this time — since it expires in June — while the rest have come to the table voluntarily, city labor negotiator Kristy Schmidt has told Noozhawk.

The Santa Barbara Police Officers Association offered up a 5 percent concession deal that was rejected by the City Council, and so far, the supervisors union has been the only one to negotiate a concession deal with the city for next year.

Like the supervisors union, the city’s largest bargaining unit, the general SEIU Local 620, has negotiated for a clause in its concession contracts that it would only accept the agreed-upon cuts if the public safety unions did as well.

Therefore, negotiating a higher concession with public safety unions, especially the Police Officers Association, becomes an even bigger fiscal incentive.

What has not been discussed — at length, anyway — have been long-term solutions. Many cuts are one-time fixes or unsustainable for long periods, as City Councilman Grant House brought up at a recent budget workshop.

City staff must determine what the priorities are to get through these hard times then plan for recovery, House said. Instead of returning to inefficiencies, there must be benchmarks in restoring essential services.

“I’m not quite hearing it,” he said.

Staff and council members have suggested some solutions to look into that would change how things are done as opposed to further cuts to services. During the presentation of the Community Development Department’s budget, the issue of privatization came up, since those offices handle many of the city’s time-and-resource-intensive services such as environmental impact reports.

Suspending or merging boards and commissions and pursuing cost recovery are other strategies being pursued by staff.

As the budget approval process continues until the end of June, city leaders will whittle down the deficit and, ideally, adopt a balanced budget that won’t require midyear, multimillion-dollar cuts. The Finance Committee makes recommendations to the City Council, which directs staff to create a finalized budget.

There are three remaining public budget workshops, which are held in the Council Chambers at City Hall, 735 Anacapa St.:

» 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday for the Airport, Solid Waste and Waterfront departments

» 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday for the Police Department

» 6 to 9 p.m. May 27 for the Fire Department

For additional resources, click here for adopted budgets from fiscal years 2000 through the present.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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