Santa Monica’s austerity plan is turning the city away from the future
Santa Monica is facing a $300 million budget shortfall and is approving severe austerity measures for a 23.8% reduction in the city budget. It illustrates how hard it will be for cities to hang onto their plans for the future. Cuts reveal what is discretionary: wellbeing, sustainability, performance, culture. Should they have asked their residents for advice?
When you read the proposed cuts Santa Monica’s bureaucracy has prepared it is a list of hundreds of individual measures amounting to a staggering 23.8% in ‘savings’ including almost 500 staff positions. Rick Cole, Santa Monica’s high profile city manager for the past five years resigned some weeks ago to ‘lead by example’ — the city manager’s office will be reduced from 66 to just thirteen employees.
Cuts: Wellbeing, sustainability, performance, culture
Reading the proposed cuts is depressing. Departments have to let go of all but the most essential services. One department after another lists how much money it will save, how many positions will be cut and how cuts will affect services. There is still some reshuffling going on, for example in its most recent meeting the city council asked the police to shift resources to prevention-based models and youth initiatives. So what is the big message of the Santa Monica 2020–21 budget?
Before there, let’s go over the exceptional progress the city has made over the past seven years. Santa Monica developed credentials on sustainability, wellbeing and being progressive about transport innovation. It won global recognition with flagship projects like its Bloomberg Mayors Challenge winning Wellbeing Index. Its problem statement in 2013 was ominous:
Governments around the world are starting to recognize that economic growth alone does not determine a community’s success. True measures of progress take into account the wellbeing of people. Do they feel empowered to make change? Are they happy, healthy, and connected to the community? Are they able access lifelong learning? Or clean air? Without these measures, governments are challenged to manage for better results.
So as we go into the budget cuts, let’s bear in mind that Santa Monica isn’t just any city. It is a small city with ambitions to put its residents first and focus on what matters.
In its 2019 Wellbeing Index, the city reveals quite how dramatically different the experience of many residents is from the glossy image of the photogenic city by the sea. Notably, just 1 in 5 residents feel that they can influence decisions in the city and even before Covid-19 28% of residents worried about making their rent or mortgage payments..
A look at the budget cuts reveals that the wellbeing index and associated measures will be ended. This includes parks & recreations offerings, Vision Zero, safe routes to school, and active ageing programs. In addition almost the entirety of city sustainability efforts will be eliminated (construction, planning, waste, electric vehicles, lighting upgrades, public tree planting). As will be the city’s own performance management and many related innovative programs. Public transit will be reduced by 30% with 55% of bus routes experiencing service cuts and 20% getting eliminated entirely. Importantly, grants to community organizations, after school programs for children and youth and 75% of library programing, and culture will be cut as well as diversity and other housing support programs.
Budgeting backwards instead of listening forward
Santa Monica’s new budget leans on its most disadvantaged residents and their hopes for a better future to make ends meet. The Wellbeing Index, intended to make the city resilient now serves as a testament to the struggle of so many residents to recover from Covid-19. The budget has no message for them, but really only answers one question: how will we get through the next 26 months.
Rick Cole, in his parting letter to the city closed by writing that the city should “pursue an expanded partnership with the community to jointly deliver the outcomes and services that matter most”. Yet, very little engagement appears to have taken place to prepare these emergency budgets or debate the options going forward. This should also give us pause: When communities are going to be ravaged by cuts, those most affected should be involved.
One of the many lessons we have learnt in public service cuts is how critical it is to involve service-users in the process. It is their priorities that should matter first and foremost. It looks unwise then that most grants to community organizations and support for local culture were scrapped. It would seem that the best way to make every little count is to stay connected to your people.
All this should alarm us, because Santa Monica is a city that has been run by one of the best city managers in the country. It has access to world-class experts, funders and innovators. It planned for challenges ahead: Only in 2018 it asked the world for ideas to tackle the challenges of automation, AI and disruptive retail to its economic future.
How then will other cities, less privileged than Santa Monica, deal with the fall-out of Covid-19? It doesn’t bode well for our communities or our planet.