Santa Barbara City Councilwoman Kristen Sneddon.
Santa Barbara City Councilwoman Kristen Sneddon says she does not believe the city's budget process is transparent. Credit: Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo

A Santa Barbara City Council budget meeting took a dramatic turn Wednesday when Councilwoman Kristen Sneddon challenged City Administrator Rebecca Bjork about the transparency of the budget process.

Sneddon dissected the budget and pointed out that the online transparency tool, the budget book and the PowerPoint presentation all showed different budget numbers.

When Bjork attempted to explain the process, a dynamic exchange ensued.

“It’s a difficult process,” Bjork said, prompting Sneddon to respond: “It’s not difficult — it’s not transparent.”

All city departments have been tasked with cutting 5% of their budget, and Sneddon wanted to know where she could look in the budget to suggest line-item cuts. She wanted to know where the status quo budget existed, because the numbers displayed in the various budget documents showed ranges of $100 million.

Finance Director Keith DeMartini said the actual status quo budget is not public.

“That is an internal staff process of how we go through our internal budget development,” DeMartini said.

A stunned Sneddon replied: “I think you have now finally answered my question. The number that we are taking the 5% reduction on is not transparent or available to any of us. I think that is the bottom line.”

Sneddon waved her hands and looked at her colleagues in bewilderment over the fact that there were wide discrepancies over the actual budget numbers.

“If that isn’t a question we are concerned with, I don’t know what we are doing here,” Sneddon said.

The moment marked a rare display of anger from Sneddon, a Santa Barbara City College geology professor who has spent months, she said, trying to get specific budget answers from the finance staff. She wanted the starting numbers and only received an answer from DeMartini, finally, during the exchange.

Sneddon explained that Bjork is requesting that the department heads cut 5%, but the estimate is based on her own budget target goals and not based on the status quo budget.

“Now I understand there’s actually a different budget that is internal. Understood,” Sneddon said.

Sneddon asked that if the actual budget isn’t public, where does she go if she wants to make adjustments?

Bjork responded: “If you want to make adjustments, you suggest to us where you want to have cuts, and we as your staff will help you understand what those look like in a line-by-line budget adjustment.”

Bjork said she gave direction to the department heads about whether to be really cautious or be overly optimistic for 2024, based on December’s revenues.

Sneddon said she has been diligently going through line item by line item to make cuts, but that’s not actually possible since the real-time budget is not public.

“It’s factually not transparent,” Sneddon said, shifting her arms back and forth. “As a community member, as a citizen, as a council member. That’s a statement. It is just not.”

She told Bjork and DeMartini to “take that as you will.” Later, Sneddon told Noozhawk that it felt like the finance staff and Bjork were keeping information internal so that they could control the decisions.

The city is facing a $1.1 million budget deficit in its $220 million general fund in 2024 and a $4.8 million shortfall in 2025. Bjork asked each department to cut 5%.

One of the biggest financial challenges facing the city, which came up during the Wednesday hearing, was the downtown parking budget. The department is facing a projected $2.9 million deficit next year and $2.1 million the following year.

Three years after the COVID-19 pandemic and when the city closed downtown to cars, fewer people are parking in downtown lots.

The city wants to slash the free period to park from 75 minutes to 60 minutes, and then charge $3 an hour instead of $2.50. That comes a year after the city raised the hourly fees from $1 to $2.50 last year. The changes could result in a revenue increase of $2 million to $2.6 million.

Downtown parking manager Sarah Clark said the staff has worked with the downtown parking committee for the past three months to find solutions.

“We have known for about a year that we would be in this position,” Clark said.

The city plans two meetings next week, with a budget vote scheduled for Wednesday.

Update: Santa Barbara Mayor Randy Rowse contacted Noozhawk after publication of this story. The following is a portion of his comments.

He said the published budget is a planning document, produced by each department to report and predict the flow of revenues and expenditures. Capital versus operations, Rowse said, can and does show a difference between the real-time transparency tool and the planning document. Grants and undispersed capital carryovers can show up as differences within and between reporting periods, Rowse said.

“The bottom line for the public to know is that our finance department is being run as well as anytime I’ve seen in my tenure in City Hall,” Rowse said. “Every dime in and out of the City’s coffers is recorded in the transparency tool. We pass annual 3rd party audits with flying colors. This budget season will call for council to ratify the tough decisions made within each department to achieve financial sustainability for our City. Our Finance Department deserves no less than the full confidence of the public.”