After 20 weeks of carefully sifting through the city’s finances, the City Council last week adopted the budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year that begins July 1. It was evident even at the finish, however, that the newly constituted council — which gained two new members in last November’s election — is serious about examining every expense and squeezing every nickel on behalf of San Marino’s taxpayers.
The final sticking point? The decision on whether to upgrade a part-time intern position at City Hall to a combination of full-time analyst and assistant to the city manager. The per-annum cost of that move would be $24,281 — less than 1% of the city’s $26.55 million budget.
And yet the battle raged.
“I find it very difficult, in a city of 14,000 [citizens], that we need a city manager, an assistant city manager and an assistant to the city manager,” said Councilman Steve Talt, one of the council newcomers.
He added: “Once you hire someone or upgrade a position, it is hard to let them go. The ad hoc advisory committee [examining finances] may say that position is obsolete. I suggest we wait on their recommendation and amend the budget if we have to 2-3 months down the line.”
The council opted for a compromise on the matter, suggested by City Manager John Schaefer. He asked the council to provide for the position in the budget but freeze it, until such time as it is deemed appropriate — or not. The arrangement received unanimous approval from the five councilmen.
San Marino engaged in a much-more-thorough budget process this cycle. It began with an informational town hall meeting Jan. 20, followed by department-by-department reviews in public meetings over April and May. Along the way, the council closely scrutinized seemingly every line item. How badly does Public Works need that dump truck? Can an analyst in one department occasionally swing over to another and serve the same function? Since when does it cost $5,000 to replace a toilet at the police station?
There were also big-ticket, controversial matters. Despite spirited exchanges with members of the Fire Department in the meetings of May 11 and May 27 regarding climbing overtime costs, the council last week elected to stick with its plan to limit the department to $230,000 in overtime for the coming fiscal year. That is less than two-thirds of what Fire Chief Mario Rueda requested, and it means the department will at times have to operate its fire engine with three men rather than its preference of four. The matter could be revisited later, however, pending the results of a deployment study that Rueda will have conducted.
In its allocations for each department, the City Council approved most of what Schaefer requested, but in most cases denied other items that were on the wish lists of department heads. Some highlights of the decisions, by department:
At last week’s meeting, Schaefer was put in the uncomfortable positon of lobbying for a personnel expense that will ease his workload. In arguing for the full-time analyst upgrade, he said of his job, “You’re paying your most expensive employee to do work that someone at a lesser rate of pay could do.” That upgraded employee, he continued, would support both him and Assistant City Manager Lucy Garcia, notably in the area of human resources.
Schaefer may ultimately get his wish, but only after the rest of the council allows the ad hoc committee to weigh in with its management audit.
On another matter in this department, the council decided against spending $84,698 to upgrade the city’s phone system, despite the entreaties of resident Susan Jakubowski, who spoke about its deplorable condition.
The deployment study by an outside consultant, for which the budget allocates $20,000, and the Fire Department’s experiences in operating the fire engine with a staff of three will determine whether that overtime figure gets bumped up from $230,000 at some point. But it will have to be a persuasive argument.
Councilman Dr. Steven Huang, voted onto the council in November, has maintained all along that three men on the engine should be sufficient. And the mayor, Dr. Allan Yung, said to Schaefer about the $230,000 allotment: “Are you going to make sure it lasts a year? No personal grudges with the Fire Department, but we have a budget to look at.”
Chief John Incontro asked for the moon when he made his presentation to the council on April 13. He got considerably less than that.
The council agreed to a new radio system ($307,500), three new patrol vehicles ($140,500), a conversion to useable space of two extraneous jail cells ($45,000), and an upgrade of Lts. Aaron Blonde and Richard Ward to the rank of commander (no additional cost in the first year), but it denied him the two extra officers he requested ($188,230).
PLANNING / BUILDING
In the budget discussions, it emerged that this department, which has been under the command of Aldo Cervantes since the end of 2014, is one of the most efficient in the city. It is projected to recover more than 90% of its costs through licenses, permits, charges for service and fines.
Cervantes made modest requests for items such as renewing the department’s geographic information system software contract ($13,000) and sailed through approval.
The budget for this department is less than it was last year, the result of moving some positions around, Schaefer said.
Interim Director Cindy Collins noted in the budget process that Recreation Department is required to recover 70% of its costs for running 11 program areas. Through fees that have been hiked, she said, the department boosted that figure to 88% in the current fiscal year, without scaring off participants.
In a tangential discussion, council members said they want to revisit the idea of the Recreation Department handling the scheduling of the Old Mill next year, rather than entrusting it to the Old Mill Foundation. The Recreation Department’s management of scheduling in 2014-15 resulted in vastly more bookings, the council was told.
Similarly, this department has taken great strides in finding sources of income. Providing passport service has resulted in $90,000 in revenues in the current fiscal year. Donations, Schaefer said, represent a robust $117,000.
Library’s requests were confined to such minor items as copiers, tables and chairs, and its budget is virtually flat for the coming year, at $1.6 million.
“Work zone” figures to be the theme in San Marino in the 2016-17 fiscal year, as the council responds to persistent requests from residents to improve streets and sidewalks. A total of $1.14 million was allocated for the repaving of streets, $642,349 of which is from restricted funds earmarked for that purpose. Sidewalks will be rehabilitated with $150,000 carried over from the current fiscal year budget. The new budget also contains $500,000 for the continuing conversion of the city’s streetlights to low-voltage power.
Public Works was denied its request for an additional sum to rebuild the Lacy Park Rose Arbor ($150,000) and an upgrade of an analyst position ($3,131).
The final numbers for San Marino’s 2016-17 fiscal year budget include an estimate of $26.55 million in unrestricted revenues and $25.32 million in budgeted expenditures. That puts the city in the black with $1.23 million in undesignated money. Some of it could go to salary increases — the city is currently in contract negotiations with police, fire and general employees. Other options include street paving and the reconstruction of a restroom at Lacy Park. The council also could stipulate that a portion of it be committed to the city’s reserves.