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Budgetary Ax Chips Away at the Cutting Edge


Santa Monica started out its budget process this year with a visual aid: a film extolling the community as a city on the cutting edge. The city is awash in social services and boasts environmental programs galore. There's a commitment to child care, public art and affordable housing. And all the potholes--6,000 last year--get filled.

But staying on the cutting edge is costly, and on Tuesday night the seven-member City Council approved a $186-million budget which, for the most part, retains the priorities and services it prides itself on, despite an expected $11.2-million shortfall.

The shortfall will be recouped by economies at City Hall, new taxes on water and parking, and increased fines for parking violations.

"I'm proud to be part of this council to take this step and raise taxes . . . so we can continue to provide services," said Councilman Ken Genser.

"I'm not proud," said Councilwoman Asha Greenberg. "This is the wrong time to be taxing Santa Monica residents at the level we're taxing them."

In cutting city spending, the ax did not fall evenly, in some cases because doing so would cut services to the public. Politics and council policy protected some, but not all, of the city's favored programs.

For example, a $2-million grant to the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and $1.1 million to programs for the homeless were untouched. A program to combat domestic violence, however, lost $5,000, and the Bayside District, which runs the Third Street Promenade, has to make do with $23,700 less than last year.

Of the city departments, the city attorney's office budget was cut the least, just 1%, while the city clerk's office was cut the most, 26%.

Only the police and fire departments will have larger budgets than last year.

Efforts by council members Robert T. Holbrook and Asha Greenberg to further cut the city attorney's office budget and services for the homeless and to abolish the Neighborhood Support Center were rebuffed. The Neighborhood Support Center is a city-funded agency that helps neighborhood groups organize to bring their concerns to City Hall.

"How in the world can we justify over $1 million a year in homeless services, and reduce and cut senior programs, domestic violence programs and programs for children?" Holbrook asked. "It just doesn't make sense."

Other council members responded that they were honoring their commitment to the conclusions of a city task force on homelessness.

The five-member Santa Monicans for Renters Rights majority held together to approve the budget as presented, except for giving back $15,000 to the Neighborhood Support Center budget, which was slated for a $90,000 cut. It will still receive about $270,000 next year.

Greenberg voted against the budget because she said it had not been sufficiently cut before taxes were raised. Though Holbrook said he shared her view, he voted for the budget based on a promise to support the schools.

The school district and the Neighborhood Support Center drew the most supporters at the public hearing, followed by backers of the Bayside District and the domestic violence program. Dozens of speakers representing an array of programs pleaded with the City Council not to cut their funding.

"The more money you invest in business, the more money you can have for the social services, which we have nothing against," said Tony Palermo, an owner of Teasers restaurant on the Third Street Promenade.

The Neighborhood Support Center "is one of the most innovative experiments in city government," argued its co-chairman, Ken Breisch.

"Please reconsider this disastrous cut (in domestic violence funding)," said Santa Monica Democratic Club President Dolores Press.

Very few speakers complained about the increased taxes. One who did was former Santa Monica Mayor Christine Reed, who told the council it was "morally wrong" to tax water while spending more than $400,000 a year on a city cable television station and funding for a computer network and the arts.

Council members said it pained them to look the speakers in the eye and cut their funding. "This has been a very, very difficult year for me," said Mayor Judy Abdo. "I have had to look at a budget that reduces funding for programs that are very near and dear to me."

Councilman Paul Rosenstein, voting on his first budget, said after the meeting, "If I can't say no to my friends when I think it's necessary, then I don't belong on the council."

In all, about $300,000 was cut from social services. The city staff is not receiving a cost-of-living raise this year, and 103 positions have been cut over two fiscal years.

Much of the shortfall stems from the state's threats to cut funding to the cities. The situation is in flux as the Legislature puts the final touches on the state budget, but Santa Monica is expected to lose $4.4 million.

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