After several years of multimillion-dollar budget deficits, the City of Santa Barbara is now confronting budget woes that are the envy of any government entity on the South Coast. Instead of the $2.7 million shortfall that City Hall bean counters predicted a year ago, the council is looking at a budget gap of just $500,000.
While not quite cause for jubilation at City Hall, it’s about the next best thing. Some councilmembers are busy pinching themselves over this good news, and some are bracing against premature celebration and spending sprees that it might engender. But Councilmembers Bendy White and Cathy Murillo have proposed restoring some of the hours cut in Eastside Library services in response to prolonged shortfalls.
As restorations go, White and Murillo are pushing an admittedly modest but symbolically potent package. If approved, their plan would partially restore Monday hours — in the afternoons and evenings — for the Eastside branch at a cost to City Hall of $6,800 for the rest of this fiscal year. White, who has increasingly emerged as the go-to councilmember for many Eastside neighborhood matters, described the restoration of service as a “no-brainer,” adding, “This is a little thing that we can definitely do.”
Murillo, still in her first month in office, campaigned on the need to restore library hours. On the matters of libraries in general, Murillo has been quite poetic, describing them as sanctuaries where young people buffeted by the chaos of poverty can find a peaceful place to learn. She said Monday hours, in particular, are important to restore because Monday is the day many students figure out their game plans for the coming week. “This is where they go to get focused on Mondays,” she said.
She said the benefits that will stem from reopening the Eastside branch for more time during the week is disproportionate to the relatively minor cost — $1,700 a month — involved. She noted that nearby schools, like Adelante Charter School and Franklin Elementary, use the Eastside Library extensively.
In a special meeting session held Thursday to give the City Council a sneak preview of this year’s budget deliberation process, City Administrator Jim Armstrong detailed the many ways Santa Barbara’s economy appears to be rebounding. Sales taxes are dramatically up two quarters in a row, and so too are bed tax revenues. Property taxes, which had been steadily declining throughout the recession, have now plateaued.
While revenues have yet to hit their per-recessionary peak, they are much improved. Likewise, city expenses have declined. With 80 fewer positions than it had three years ago, the general fund budget has shed $10 million in expenses.