City Council Starts to Zero In on ‘Extra’ Projects

On the basis of a resident survey and their own opinions, City Council members have formally dictated which special projects they’d like to review when municipal departments begin presenting their 2019-20 budgets.
In its Friday morning meeting, the council voted for or against proposed projects by line item, often after discussion among the group’s members and city officials on the merits and scope of the proposals. That being said, the votes Friday reflected only a desire to hear more about the proposals, which will still have to be approved as part of next year’s budget.
“These are the extra things to do,” explained Councilman Ken Ude. “What we’ve been talking to staff about is, ‘We have a certain amount of activities we’re doing today that are costing a certain amount of money, so we know what services we’re doing and what it’s costing us.’ This is, ‘What are the extra things we want to layer on top of the base case?’”
Projects that will be explored include partnerships with the San Marino Unified School District for possible cost savings; developing a city-run wellness program; establishing the capacity for grant-writing in City Hall; purchasing an electronic work order system to monitor department activities; developing a sidewalk maintenance plan; seeking an urban forester to assess trees’ needs; creating an economic development program for San Marino’s business areas; creating a financial incentive to planting heritage trees; increasing police employment; expanding the use of street surveillance cameras; and enhancing neighborhood watch programs.
Among the projects that will be considered, the two receiving the most attention and interest were developing a 20-year master plan for Lacy Park and conducting a condition assessment of all of San Marino’s physical assets — buildings and facilities, essentially.
According to a presentation, the Lacy master plan would involve moderate demand on the city staff, with the bulk of the work assigned to outside companies and people. An estimated $80,000 would be needed for the plan’s development.
“I’m all for a long-term plan,” Ude said. “I don’t understand the $80,000, but I guess we’d get into that when it’s all fleshed out and presented.”
Parks and Public Works Director Michael Throne said he strongly recommended having someone besides a city staffer develop the master plan, having previously been tasked with preparing one as a public works director for another city — “I’ll never do it again,” he said candidly — and needing five years to complete it.
“My recommendation would really be to hire an expert in this, to set a good schedule and to get it done within a fiscal year,” he said.
The City Council was unanimous in approval of the Lacy Park idea, but divided on the notion of a municipal asset condition assessment — Vice Mayor Gretchen Shepherd Romey and Councilman Steve Talt opposed having the item on the upcoming budget.
Sticker shock likely contributed to that opposition — a complete assessment of the city’s assets is projected to cost $700,000-$900,000, depending on whether it’s done piecemeal or altogether. The issue presents itself in part because the city has historically been “very deficient” in its record keeping, according to the city report on the item.
“I think it’s important to know the condition of our assets to budget properly,” Ude said.
Throne explained that although his department has been conducting hazard assessments here and there, he remains in the dark on the condition of plumbing, electrical wiring and other utility-related infrastructure in a lot of the buildings, most of which are quite old. The subject will be discussed in future meetings.
Proposals the council decided not to pursue in the immediate future included developing a mobile app linked to the city government; investing in a professional citywide survey to more reliably pin down opinions and concerns from residents; further enhancing the city’s volunteer program; and developing a morale enhancement plan for city employees.
Votes in favor of or against these proposals did not reflect ideological positions by the council members, but rather whether they wished to specifically address them in the forthcoming fiscal year as special projects. Indeed, some items were turned down simply because council members felt they were part of the job description for the to-be-hired community services director.
The city plans to call as many as three special meetings toward the end of March and possibly early April for municipal departments to present their budgets. The City Council will have opportunities there to continue its support for these special projects, or shelve them for later use.
The full presentation for each considered proposal can be found in the agenda packet for this meeting on the city’s website at cityofsanmarino.org.

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