Tempers Flare in Budget Brouhaha
Public Safety Pitted Against Other City Functions
During budget deliberations that sorely tested the wits, patience, and restraint of Santa Barbara City Council members, hard core swimmer Monica Jones managed to provide much needed comic relief as well as a practical strategy for city residents hoping to preserve access to city services in lean economic times. Jones announced that she, as a member of Friends of Los Banos Pool, had embarked upon a public fundraising effort to keep Los Banos open for Sunday afternoon adult lap swims, which had been earmarked for elimination in response to City Hall’s projected shortfall of $10.5 million. Jones pledged that she would raise the $4,400 needed to preserve the Sunday adult lap swim at Los Banos, which averages about 43 swimmers per session. But a much bigger issue, Jones said, was the fate of the free recreational swim at Ortega Pool, offered seven days a week, which had also been earmarked for elimination. Jones noted that 4,200 people – mostly kids – take advantage of the free swimming at Ortega Pool each summer, which is heavily used by low income families on the city’s Eastside. Jones and Friends of Los Banos pledged to raise the $8,800 to preserve the free recreation swim at Ortega Pool as well.
While this will do little to alleviate the city’s gaping fiscal problems, Jones said, it will spare those least able to defend themselves from the budget axe. Councilmembers and city administrators were willing to spare the two pools based merely on Jones’ pledge because several years ago, Friends of Los Banos privately raised $1 million to rehabilitate the then-ailing Los Banos Pool. Jones – who explained, “Swimming is the only exercise you can do horizontally” – said she’s raised $1,700 thus far, $1 of which came from a homeless man.
The sweet optimistic buzz Jones provided, however, faded fast in light of councilmembers’ dueling agendas and grim news that the State of California – facing a $24 billion deficit of its own – appears intent upon raiding up to $3.6 million in revenues that would otherwise go to City Hall. That overshadowed Friday’s announcement that the city’s largest union – Service Employees International Union Local 620 – had tentatively agreed to a combination of contract concessions worth $1.6 million with $780,000 to the general fund. In exchange, administrators agreed to the union’s demand that no “warm body positions” be laid off. Unions representing firefighters and police officers have struck no similar deals with City Hall.
For a while, push came unceremoniously to shove, as councilmember and mayoral candidate Iya Falcone announced she wanted to re-instate all the cuts proposed for the police and fire departments. Initially, it appeared Falcone – who has been strongly backed in her mayoral bid by the Police Officers Association and the Firefighters Association – was seeking to restore $2.2 million in funding to the two departments, but with refinement from councilmember Dale Francisco – and help from harried city budget analysts – that sum would shrink to $430,000. Even so, it was way too much for Falcone’s fellow councilmembers to swallow. Councilmember Grant House objected – through a series of pointed questions directed at staff – that Falcone was attempting to balance the entire budget deficit on the backs of other city departments. He noted that the police and fire departments had been asked to absorb much smaller cuts than other departments in deference to their importance. Councilmember Helene Schneider – also running for mayor – accused Falcone of playing “the public safety card.” Mayor Marty Blum expressed vexation that Falcone had not declared her intentions earlier; Falcone retorted that her support for public safety had been unequivocal throughout the weeks of preliminary budget discussions, if not the whole last year. And councilmember Das Williams, now running for state assembly, demanded to know where Falcone hoped to find the half a million dollars to restore police and fire funding. Falcone, he charged, was resorting to budgetary “gimmicks and illusions” by assuming City Hall would receive certain revenues that state lawmakers had all but vowed to keep.
While Falcone clearly lacked the votes, she found an able ally in councilmember Dale Francisco, who proved adept at packaging more bite-sized proposals to restore funding for certain specific positions within both departments. Specifically, Francisco worried that by cutting such civilian positions as the police department’s firing range master and armorer, as well as one of the computer technicians assigned who maintains car computers for both police and fire department, the effectiveness of patrol officers would be undermined. But to restore those positions, the other side countered, would jeopardize $300,000 set aside in reserves to help fund four sworn police officers positions should they not be funded, as is hoped, by a federal stimulus grant designed to fund law enforcement agencies. Although Tuesday night’s vote is far from the final word on the city’s budget, the council ultimately voted unanimously in favor of a balanced spending package that contains more than a little pain, but quite a few notable concessions as well. The final vote is expected at the end of June.