City Council Budget $28 Million: Now, How to Spend It?

In preparing the city’s budget for the next fiscal year, department heads have been asked to either trim expenses or to maintain expenses and improve efficiency — but the City Council avoided phrasing any reduction or improvement as a specific order.
City Manager Marcella Marlowe said she plans to present a fairly maintained General Fund budget — one that doesn’t substantially add or reduce from the current year — as she continues to iron out the wrinkles of prior bureaucratic mismanagement in City Hall. Parks and Public Works Director Michael Throne outlined a plan to develop his department’s “assembly line” that will allow the city to aggressively address deferred infrastructure maintenance.
After the City Council outlined its desired direction at its Friday meeting, the administration will return on June 29 with actual numbers; the City Council must adopt a budget by the end of August.
“If we can’t find places to cut — and I think we can if we carefully look at this wisely — then make sure we’re getting more for our money,” Mayor Steve Talt told Marlowe on Friday. “There’s nothing that bothers me more than government waste, and it happens at all levels. If you put something in the budget, I want you to think carefully about whether our residents would think this is spent wisely.”
City officials, in response to calls by vocal residents, have a stated goal of having a zero-based budgeting process as a way of achieving that efficiency. Marlowe and her administration — some of whom are in their first budget — have supported the idea, but said it was unrealistic this year because of the organizational and procedural issues that plague city operations.
“It has not quite worked out that way,” she told the City Council. “As you know, we have joked a lot that whenever we seem to do something in the organization, we turn over a rock and find something has not been done correctly or there is no documentation of how something was done. We keep tripping over our own goals. We did not start off at ground zero. We are kind of in a hole trying to get up to ground zero.”
The city is projecting just shy of $28 million in revenues for the 2018-19 fiscal year, an increase of 2.26% from this year. In plotting how to spend most of that money, the administration and the City Council have a handful of questions to answer, namely how aggressive they want to be with addressing deferred maintenance and capital projects.
The newly created Capital Improvements program is flush with funds — exceeding $13 million — because the city recently adopted a fiscal policy that dictated reassigning the bulk of its standing reserves. Some councilmembers hoped to add the usual $2.5 million for general capital projects to this fund regardless with the idea of starting more projects sooner, but another argument was made to hold off because most of the forthcoming year will be spent assessing the state of the city’s infrastructure anyway.
“Our thinking this year is that we don’t have the ability to launch an aggressive capital improvements program,” Marlowe said.
Within City Hall, Marlowe said she envisioned eliminating two positions, downgrading two more, upgrading each a full- and part-time position, adding each a full- and part-time position and converting two part-time positions into a single full-time position. She said she also wanted to substantially bolster professional development and networking as a way of improving productivity and morale and also identifying “rock star” employees the city should strive to retain.
“The city has historically — I’ll be frank — not been great about that,” Marlowe admitted.
Throne said he wanted to spend the year developing potential projects after evaluating various needs and their costs throughout the city. That way, when his work in finding outside funding sources bore fruit, he’d be able to easily review and select an applicable project for the grant or whatever the source is.
Outside funding, Throne said, was something he felt comfortable taking the reins on, given his prior experience writing grants for other municipalities. He added that inexperience with that likely precluded San Marino from previously taking advantage of such.
“In my assessment, I think we have been reluctant or inexperienced,” Throne said. “We have not been aggressive. There is a perception in the outside world that we can pay for everything and I think we may have internalized that a little bit.”

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