With swimmers outside City Hall chanting “save our pool” and “let me swim” during Tuesday's meeting, the Santa Maria City Council told staff to pause some major projects so the Public Library and Paul Nelson Aquatic Center can reopen when allowed under public health orders, rather than being closed several months to save money.
The city had proposed keeping the pool and library closed for months, to save about $1 million. Both facilities have been closed for months due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“The idea before both of these was neither is able to fully open at this point anyway,” City Manager Jason Stilwell said, adding that a longer closure would help the city avoid layoffs.
He estimated the decision not to close either the pool and library would require finding $558,000.
A timeline for reopening remains up in the air since the city would need to hire staff and complete certification under the public heath orders.
The 4-1 vote to approve a 2020-22 budget, with Councilwoman Gloria Soto opposed, happened four hours into the meeting.
As the council debated whether to adopt the budget or delay the vote, Mayor Alice Patino noted the turmoil during the last few months due to the COVID-19 public health emergency and its effect on city coffers.
In the new fiscal year starting July 1, the proposed budget adds up to spending $217 million, a $5-million drop from the current year budget. Santa Maria expects further revenue losses in future years, due to economic impacts of the pandemic.
“We don’t have any good choices in front of us when cutting,” Patino said, later calling it “the worst it’s ever been.”
She supported keeping the pool open and avoiding library closures, and adding funding to the youth task force.
“We just need to suck it up and figure out how we’re going to do this because it’s on the five of us how to do this,” Patino said.
Councilwoman Etta Waterfield suggested delaying some capital improvement projects and maintenance work, to instead fund the library and pool to open earlier.
“I’m just trying to make this work for the kids, for everybody in the city of Santa Maria,” she said. “I’m looking at the capital projects and some we can postpone, not eliminate.”
They considered using reserve funds to fill the revenue gaps, as the county did, but Councilman Mike Cordero called it risky.
“It’s a tremendous risk to use one-time money to finance ongoing expenses,” he said, likening it to spending next month’s rent money.
Soto said she wanted to see final numbers before approving a budget, and also spoke against the proposed cuts to the Santa Maria Fire Department for the next year.
“I think we can look at some of these others in four months, six months — I don’t know what the magic time would be — when we see things looking up,” Patino said.
Santa Maria has implemented a hiring freeze and, like other cities, is facing ever-rising employee pension costs under the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS), Stilwell said.
“It’s a very difficult budget with reductions throughout the city,” he said.
A pair of protests preceded the City Council meeting, with the larger group demanding more funding for the swimming pool, so it would not stay closed until 2021.
Other protesters, many with signs, gathered to ask the city to spend less money on the police department, and there was a counter-protest supporting local police.
— Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.