Five things we’ve learned from city budget meetings
It’s budget season again, and things in Santa Cruz’s city government are looking up—thanks, partly, to a rebounding economy and the recently increased transient occupancy taxes. Santa Cruz also got its bond rating upgraded to AA+, putting the city’s credit on an equal footing with the nation’s.
The trick this month, though, will be figuring out the best way to divvy up this $216 million pie we call the proposed city budget—although council and city staff do see eye-to-eye in most places. With all that in mind, we take a look at the budget discussions across five different departments in meetings so far.
Public Works, the city’s most expensive department, has a few significant infrastructure plans this year—including an update for Ocean Street traffic equipment to reduce wait times, and a roundabout where the wharf meets Beach Street. The discussion over the department’s proposed $56 million budget hasn’t been without speed bumps, though.
Alternative transportation activists want to put brakes on a $500,000 plan to study a supposedly much-needed Highway 1 bridge replacement over the San Lorenzo River that CalTrans had originally offered to fund. CalTrans and the Regional Transportation Commission have since backed away from earlier comments; they now say the 58-year-old bridge actually isn’t so unsafe after all. Councilmembers Don Lane and Micah Posner tried to direct staff to take the bridge study out of the budget, but their motion didn’t go anywhere with the other councilmembers. Public Works Director Mark Dettle, who worries about the bridge’s safety, said CalTrans doesn’t take into account certain concerns, like flood dangers posed by the current bridge.
After hiring 16 police officers last year, the cops are fully staffed—with 94 officers—for the first time in recent memory. Chief Kevin Vogel, who’s been given authority to over-hire, is looking to add a few more officers to create a buffer in the case of future retirements. The police also came up in discussions over the new gate at the Homeless Services Center, and the county’s Downtown Accountability Program, to which the city plans to kick $200,000. That should be a start for what could be a popular, if expensive, fix for the problem of chronic offenders downtown. Even some of the program’s most ardent supporters, including former Mayor Mike Rotkin, say it might run a bigger tab if the city wants to chip in for housing—an important part of keeping offenders off the streets.
Libraries everywhere are transitioning into becoming high-tech community gathering places, rather than fuddy-duddy warehouses for books. Libraries director Teresa Landers says the county’s system—which gets a tiny fraction of its budget from the city, to the tune of a proposed $1.3 million this upcoming year—will be introducing either tablets or Chromebooks soon.
Meanwhile, library administrators are planning for a likely ballot initiative in June 2015, and weighing whether to restructure—which would put the board in the hands of city managers, in the hopes of creating greater efficiency—or leave it in the hands of elected officials.
When the city backburnered plans for a desalination plant last year, the water department’s expenses didn’t disappear overnight. The department now has to incentivize conservation, after a dry winter in which we received just 1/25 of an inch of rain in the month of January. After rolling out water rationing this month, the city will begin offering water school classes for users who go over their allotted limit, but want to avoid charges.
Water director Rosemary Menard is also hoping to start a new online metering system, to send data on how much water households are using back to the plant (or to a user’s smartphone) in real time. The department, which maintains 300 miles of pipes, has less than half the fund balance it did three years ago—largely due to upgrades and repairs, including a $26 million replacement of the Bay Street Reservoir tanks, which will be finished this year. Rates last went up in 2011.
Caring and sharing
In light of a sunnier budget outlook, several nonprofits are requesting funding increases over the cumulative $1 million they received last year. The Human Care Alliance came to a budget meeting to request a cost of living increase, in order to keep up with the rising costs of shelter, food and utilities. The council cut spending 10 percent on social programs in 2011, but will revisit the subject at its June 10 meeting.