Budget Receives Close Scrutiny From Council

Transparency in city government, especially as it related to the fiscal-year budget process, was a common rallying cry for those bidding for seats on the City Council last fall. Dr. Steven Huang resolved to find “how we could have a more efficient city government while reducing costs,” while Steve Talt professed his “willingness to roll up my sleeves on issues like the budget and work with our citizens.”
Through it all, the implication was that the City Council and city staff were marshaling the money in the shadows each spring, slavish about the status quo and never examining the books with a fresh, critical eye.
That all changed Monday night. In a public workshop held at the Crowell Public Library, the council dragged a fine-tooth comb over the city’s finances, receiving detailed budget presentations from six departments, all outlining their costs, revenues (where applicable), comparisons to similar cities and budgetary wish lists for the coming fiscal year. (The Police Department had presented its case separately at the council meeting of April 13.)
This opportunity to pore over the books did not exactly stir the passions of the community. The Barth Room at the library was crowded with people for the 4½-hour meeting, but those who were not city staffers, members of the council or commissions, or newspaper reporters could be counted on one hand.
But the council — which now includes Huang and Talt — got its opportunity to appraise the city’s finances in line-item detail. Could a single administrative analyst swing back and forth between the Recreation Department and the library and fill both functions? Does it really cost $6,635 to convert a streetlight to low-voltage power? As the Fire Department budget climbs, how, exactly, is the city saving money by sharing command functions with San Gabriel and South Pasadena?
At this stage in the budget process, the council and the public have been presented with what City Manager John Schaefer calls a “core budget,” not reflecting any capital costs. It does not reflect $3.7 million in revenues that represent discretionary funds for 2016-17. Over the next two months, the council will decide how to divvy up that pie, leading up to adoption of the budget no later than the council meeting of June 24.
A few developments from the presentations (in alphabetical order):
ADMINISTRATION
Three hats have been ordered up for Assistant City Manager Lucy Garcia. In the wake of Sue Cobb’s retirement as community services director, Garcia’s duties will be divided into thirds: administration, recreation and the library.
The cost to replace the city’s phone system is nearly $85,000. An expenditure of $20,000 is proposed for equipment and service to stream City Council meetings on the city website. Huang, who had requested this feature, wondered if it could be offered more cheaply through a YouTube channel.
FIRE
New Chief Mario Rueda presented a net budget of $5.35 million, which factors in savings from the shared command and money recovered from ambulance services. He seeks relatively modest capital outlays for breathing apparatuses ($35,000), a paramedic defibrillator/heart monitor ($40,000) and a deployment study ($30,000).
Mayor Dr. Allan Yung looked over the numbers and asked where the Fire Department’s overtime costs were detailed. They were not broken out in the budget rundown, but were instead included in the projected personnel costs of $5.6 million. The Fire Department is on track to spend $400,000 in overtime this fiscal year, a key sticking point in the running debate over whether San Marino’s fire engine should be staffed with four firefighters at all times, or with three firefighters part of the time.
LIBRARY
The proposed budget of $1.6 million is “virtually flat from the previous year,” Garcia said. A great chunk of that operating money reflects the largesse of the San Marino Public Library Foundation and the Friends of the Crowell Public Library. They’ve combined to contribute nearly $110,000 to the library in the current fiscal year and are projected to increase that to $117,545 in 2016-17.
Another key jolt in library revenues has come through fees for processing passports. They were estimated to bring in $35,000 for the current fiscal year, but with two months to go, they’ve already generated $85,000. The projection for next year has been bumped to $90,000.
PARKS, PUBLIC WORKS
The department is still holding a place for a director/city engineer, with the salary budgeted for the next fiscal year, but until that hire is made, Garcia is wearing that hat, too.
She identified 17 capital projects that are proposed for 2016-17, totaling just over $3 million. The big-ticket items are repaving of several streets ($1.5 million, offset by $642,000 in restricted funds) and the aforementioned streetlight conversion project, which will cost $690,000 to switch the final 104 lights from high voltage to low.
PLANNING, BUILDING
This department has the most modest requests for the coming fiscal year. It seeks $15,000 to upgrade its business license software program and $13,000 for Geographic Information System software.
Planning and Building anticipates recovering at least 85% of its costs through building permits, license fees and fines. It anticipated taking in $995,000 in that area this past fiscal year, but because the El Niño rains didn’t crimp construction, as expected, that number will be $1.17 million, Director Aldo Cervantes said.
RECREATION
This department is mandated to recover 70% of the costs for the 11 program areas it administers, and interim Director Cindy Collins said that figure is projected to be 87.9% in the coming fiscal year.
Huang asked if the recovery rate could be hiked to 100%. Collins responded that unlike the communities of Hermosa Beach and Piedmont, San Marino cannot pull in substantial sums from the rental of facilities, and that the Recreation Department would be severely impacted if it attempted to recover all of its costs. Program fees will already be hiked 16% in the coming fiscal year, she said.

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