The city will continue to have all eyes on its financial books as it approaches its annual mid-year review of the annual budget in January.
It is a theme that has persisted throughout 2016.
Perhaps the most visible example was cemented by the oft-contentious discussion and adoption of the fiscal year 2016-17 budget in June, which involved a continuing impasse with the Fire Department on overtime and included disagreements over a possible position upgrade within City Hall that, at a glance, appeared inconsequential in the context of the city’s $26.55 million budget.
This was the atmosphere that helped get Councilmen Dr. Steven Huang and Steve Talt elected in 2015, and they often kick-started the drawn-out budget discussions for the first half of the fiscal year. Having wrapped up their first year of office, they will become the senior City Council members in 2018 as a result of their three colleagues facing term limits in next year’s election.
This also was part of the agenda for Councilman Allan Yung, who served as mayor this year. He resolved, upon his appointment as mayor, to facilitate a more open budget process to involve the community, and City Council meetings frequently heard opinions from residents sitting in the audience.
The City Council has thawed its stance slightly in regards to Fire Department overtime, most recently in the face of data illustrating the growing number of medical calls in San Marino’s aging community. A great number of these calls — more than one a day, as Talt once noted — require at least four paramedics to respond.
San Marino’s firefighters are fully trained paramedics and typically deploy four in an engine and two in an ambulance.
The worry is that if the department is restricted on filling shift absences with overtime, it will be forced to send three on an engine while the ambulance is responding to an entirely separate call, which could potentially inhibit their ability to handle an emergency.
A deployment study is expected to help dictate how the department could streamline its operations. Fire Chief Mario Rueda — who also is wrapping up his first year at the helm — said he expects to fill staffing vacancies quickly. Those vacancies, on top of injuries, vacation days and offsite training, have resulted in overtime having to be used for nearly every shift.
The city is expected to modify the Fire Department’s overtime budget in January after capping it at $230,000 in June. Even Huang conceded recently that overtime seemed inevitable.
Huang, Talt and Rueda weren’t the only new faces for the city this year.
Cindy Collins was at least familiar when she took the reins as interim city manager in July, when John Schaefer retired after four years on that job (he had another 38 years as a police officer). She had previously worked a variety of jobs in City Hall between 2001 and 2011 and had already filled an interim role earlier in the year (with the Recreation Department).
However, she doesn’t plan to seek the full-time job, which will trigger a search for her replacement after the New Year.
Another new face will stick around for the foreseeable future. Dan Wall, hired in July as the city’s Parks and Public Works director, brought with him the expertise of being a civil engineer with extensive experience in both the public and private sector.
The result so far is that projects are more meticulously planned before going out to bid. More accurate evaluations of city-owned structures have been done. More recently, Wall has agreed to take on the task of designing future street improvement projects — precluding the city from having to contract out such services to private engineering firms.
Other money questions loom over the city. An ad hoc committee is expected to conclude a thorough evaluation of the city’s various departments to highlight inefficiencies to be addressed. Many eyes are trained on the Recreation Department, particularly with what exactly to do with the Stoneman Building.
There also is the Rose Arbor in Lacy Park, which rang in more expensive repairs than expected after Wall conducted a deeper inspection of the decaying structure. He and Collins have been exploring the possibility of seeking further donations to help offset that project, which had options reaching toward the $700,000 mark.
Additionally, the San Marino Unified School District recently approached the city about possibly committing $2 million toward its forthcoming athletic complex to be constructed at Huntington Middle School. The donation was framed as an advance on rental fees the city is expected to incur from future use of the facility.
More thoughtful discussion is expected down the road once numbers on rental fees and hours are more cemented and legal questions about funding sources are answered.
All of that said, the city has pushed forward a number of expensive projects to upgrade its utilities and infrastructure.
Work to replace street lights with high-efficiency bulbs and electricity meters is expected to wrap up early in 2017 after beginning in November. Although coming in just more than half a million dollars, the meters are expected to generate significantly lower monthly bills than those of the previous lights, which were unmetered and charged a flat rate.
The Huntington Drive project, which is costing about $971,000, is redoing damaged sidewalks and repaving the main artery of San Marino and is expected to also wrap up early in 2017 after a holiday hiatus.
Wall plans on continuing to engineer similar street projects — saving money because of the in-house planning — in the future to help bring San Marino’s streets up to snuff.
When Councilman Dr. Richard Sun accepted his selection as mayor for 2017, he advanced a similar agenda of making investments into long-term projects while finding ways to cut other costs.
In speaking at his final meeting as mayor, Yung said he believed the city should earmark a portion of its revenue specifically for infrastructure spending. He added how important it is for the city to invest in recreational facilities to help bring residents closer together.
Amidst any disagreements, the city’s five-council members agreed their efforts shared a goal: making San Marino attractive for new residents and making its current occupants want to stay. Yung made a quick observation on this at the December meeting.
“People in Europe, in Asia, everywhere, know about San Marino,” he said.