The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken Santa Barbara City Hall, and for the first time City Administrator Paul Casey said there will be financial cuts all around.
Even he will take a pay cut.
“I will lead,” Casey told Noozhawk on Monday. “I am not going to ask my employees to do something that I would not do myself — if not more.”
Casey’s acceptance of the dire state of the city comes as City Hall prepares to go into unplanned labor negotiations. The City Council will hold a special closed session meeting Tuesday with all of its labor groups to talk about the budget situation.
Casey earns about $290,000 annually and received an $11,500 salary and benefits increase last year.
After the closed session, at its regular 2 p.m. meeting, Casey will present the state of the budget and the ways to cope with the projected loss of millions of dollars in revenues.
The state’s stay-at-home order has devastated the local economy, shredded thousands of jobs and sent many to the unemployment line. City Hall already furloughed about 400 part-time workers and city revenues are expected to plummet.
Service reductions, salaries cuts, aid from the federal government, even pulling dollars from Measure C were all on the table, Casey said.
The budget talks come at a time of increasing frustration with City Hall on multiple fronts.
A change.org petition started by resident James Fenkner called on Casey and the highest-paid city managers to take a 30-percent pay cut, and the petition has garnered nearly 2,000 signatures.
Further fueling the political fire, Mayor Cathy Murillo plans to announce a task force at Tuesday’s meeting that she is calling a 15-member “Business Advisory Team,” or BAT. Even that process, however, has not been without turmoil.
Some people feel excluded from the process and are upset that as of now there is no State Street property owner on the committee.
“It was frustrating to hear from the mayor that she was holding all these meetings with these economic stakeholders and not communicating to the rest of us,” Councilman Oscar Gutierrez said. “The community should have a little more input on who should be on the task force rather than have the city manager and mayor handpick who should be on the task force.”
Gutierrez said the process should have been done publicly. He said he had been calling around for weeks trying to pull people together.
“I am trying to do my best to help this community during this crisis and I feel like there are these silos of people trying to get their own work done and it is frustrating,” Gutierrez said.
Murillo told Noozhawk on Monday that she has been working to create a task force for a couple of weeks.
She plans to reveal the details of the advisory committee at Tuesday’s meeting, but told Noozhawk that Amy Cooper, owner of Plum Goods; Sherry Villanueva, founder of ACME Hospitality; Barrett Reed, Santa Barbara Planning Commissioner and developer; Bob Stout, Wildcat owner; George Leis, president and CEO of Montecito Bank & Trust; and members of the Visit Santa Barbara, Downtown Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce and others would be on the panel. T
wo members of the City Council will sit on the panel, likely Mike Jordan and Meagan Harmon, and Santa Barbara County would also appoint someone.
New economic development manager Jason Harris would also serve on the panel.
“I know that people will want to be on this committee and we want to keep it small,” Murillo said. “I ask them to trust my judgment in inviting the people that I have.”
Murillo said she will have to wait and see the numbers before taking a firm stand on cuts to employee salaries.
“The hit to our revenues means that everyone is going to have to feel some pain, so the prudent thing to do is to wait until we have some firm numbers and take a look at where we can make some cuts, cuts that don’t diminish our services to residents, and then make a careful decision about possible furloughs. We have to work with our labor unions. I am not ready to say what those things will be until we go through a proper budget review process.”
Murillo said everyone at the city is working hard.
“I hope people realize that all city employees, but especially the city administrator’s office and the City Council are working extra hard during the pandemic response,” Murillo said.
“I get it that people are asking for pay cuts, but they should also know that everyone is working seven days a week. I don’t take any time off. I might do a two-hour movie just to relax my mind. I sleep for seven hours. They should know that we are on duty and working hard around the clock during the pandemic.”
Former Mayor Hal Conklin is meeting with downtown property owners and Harris on Wednesday to discuss a revitalization plan.
He said the city should be as transparent as possible in finding task force members. He said the task force should consist of one-third property owners, one-third business owners, and the remainder should be banks and leasing agents. And the direction needs to come from the council as a whole.
“You won’t make this happen unless you hit the ground running and the community as a whole sees it as the right answer,” Conklin said. “This, in the era of the coronavirus, is destined for the respirator and you know what happens when you are on the respirator, 80 percent of them die.”
Murillo said she is remaining optimistic.
“Being the mayor of Santa Barbara, our city has great influence on the South Coast, and in the region, and I am proud that we have the resources to create this recovery plan, engaging respected and engaged members of the business community,” Murillo said.