The Eastside Library in Santa Barbara.
Boosting funding and hours at the Eastside Library is among proposals from some members of the Santa Barbara City Council as they debate 2024 budget priorities. Credit: Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo

Santa Barbara City Councilwoman Kristen Sneddon said Monday that the city’s proposed budget for 2024 could be off by at least $10 million through incorrect projections, and asserted that the finance staff has “lost focus” on the city’s values.

Sneddon has emerged as the strongest critic of City Administrator Rebecca Bjork and the finance staff’s proposed spending blueprint.

Her blunt comments and unabashed skepticism at two public meetings have sent shockwaves through City Hall, and turned typically staid discussions into a dramatic, politically charged debate.

“This is too much, too fast,” Sneddon said at Monday’s special budget hearing. “I support a phased approach. I am not a fan of ripping off Band-Aids.

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.

The city has a $667 million overall budget for 2024-25.

Bjork asked each department to cut 5% to reduce its general fund subsidy.

Bjork directed each department head to cut the budget by 5%, a move that Sneddon said lacked creativity. The city needs to be more “surgical,” she said.

Sneddon said some of the proposed cuts hit socio-economic communities hardest, and that was unacceptable.

She called for full funding of libraries, parks and recreation, youth services and after-school programs.

She noted that Measure C, a 1% sales tax, was intended for capital projects such as street repairs, but also for community needs such as recreation and libraries.

She requested that the city restore funding for two police office positions, a range master and a fire inspector II.

“In this budget deliberation, in this presentation, we have lost focus on what our values are as a city,” Sneddon said.

While some of her colleagues have expressed concern privately that she is putting the city in an awkward spot, Councilman Eric Friedman has voiced the most public opposition to Sneddon’s statements.

“There’s a lot to unpack, and I really can’t unpack what council member Sneddon just said because I don’t understand where she is getting the margin of error,” Friedman said.

He said it seemed that Sneddon wants the budget restored with no cuts to anything else. Using more Measure C sales tax funds is not a good long-term use of funds, he said.

“We’re passing the problem we inherited to the next council and the next council,” Friedman said. “It has to stop somewhere. If we don’t stop it, we’re going to continue to have these issues.

Monday’s meeting was intended to allow the council members to give feedback to staff about their budget priorities.

In addition to Sneddon’s comments, other council members expressed support for staff’s proposal to increase hourly downtown parking fees to $3 an hour, but pushed back on cutting the free time from 75 minutes to 60 minutes.

Most of the public speakers called on the council to restore funding to the downtown and Eastside Santa Barbara public libraries to seven days a week. Right now, they are open five and six days a week, respectively.

“We are considering what should be an emergency, only being open five days a week,” said Jim Jackson, president of the Santa Barbara Public Library Foundation.

The library supporters requested that the council allocate $600,000 in Measure C funds to restore hours to both libraries. Hours were cut at the start of the pandemic, but have not been restored, they said.

Barbara Cronin Hershberg, president of the Friends of the Santa Barbara Public Library, said that not all families can afford summer camps and taking trips during the summer, so the library is a safe place for them to read and explore learning.

“The Santa Barbara Library is more important than ever when the school year ends,” Hershberg said. “I would much rather support having a library open seven days a week by paying librarians their hard-earned salaries, rather than paying for road repair.”

Councilwoman Alejandra Gutierrez said she is in full support of restoring funding to libraries and recreation.

“They are crucial to our community,” Gutierrez said.

Councilwoman Meagan Harmon took a longer-range look at the city’s finances, and suggested that the 15% reserve policy is too high and that the money might be better spent on the needs of the community.

The city has a 15% disaster reserve fund, and 10% contingency fund. Harmon told Noozhawk after the meeting that she is interested in reducing the contingency reserves by 2-5%

The city, she said, needs to have a “larger conversation” about reserve funds because money that is going into reserves could be spent on essential community services.

“If we are really serious about being aspirational, then let’s get serious about the policy that will allow us to fulfill those aspiration to the benefit of our city residents.”

The council will return Wednesday night with final budget direction to the finance staff.