2024-2025 Budget Review Part I – Four More SMPD Officers, Cuts to Sidewalk and Alley Maintenance

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Tuesday night’s meeting gave the Santa Monica City Council its first look at the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, a chance to begin discussion on how to spend public money during 2024-2025, and a forecast for the 2025-2026 fiscal year. While the Council passed most of the budget as it was proposed by city staff, there was also a two hour debate over whether or not the city should hire four more SMPD officers than was in the proposed budget by slashing funds earmarked to repair and maintain its sidewalks, alleyways and other infrastructure.

The budget will be formally approved in the June 25, 2028 meeting.

During the presentation of budget highlights, city staff emphasized that the Capital Improvement Budget remains at only 61% of its pre-COVID 19 levels and that the city can’t continue to defer maintenance of its infrastructure. 

The initial budget presented by staff had no increase to the SMPD budget, but the staff was prepared with budget items that could be cut, or see further cuts, to provide more funding for police officers. To fund the four new positions, the city council voted to accept these tradeoffs, and eliminate funding for the sidewalk repair program, CCTV expansion program, reappropriate funds the city expects from increased tourism, and canceling an increase for the citywide facilities renewal program (a fund that is used to replace obsolete or broken city infrastructure such as HVAC, carpets, etc.) 

During discussion, Councilmember Lana Negrete proposed eliminating the cuts to the CCTV program and cutting $250,000 from the alley repair and street repaving programs instead.

During question and answer, SMPD Chief Ramon Batista stated that SMPD needs more funding for positions and to update the city’s security cameras. SMPD currently has 212 officers on staff with a budget that allows for 228 officers. SMPD has not been fully staffed since well before the pandemic started in March of 2020.

The Council was faced with a tough decision, to fund maintenance of its infrastructure or more police officers.

They chose the police officers on a unanimous 7-0 vote.

“As far as I’m concerned, our top priority has to be the safety of our residents,” stated Mayor Phil Brock, who championed the increase in policing. “I don’t want potholes either…I understand the priorities but I want safe, clean, lit, streets. But we can’t do that if we don’t make a solid commitment to making public safety our top priority in the city.”

Councilmember Gleam Davis expressed concern about Santa Monica backsliding into sidewalk conditions that might lead to exposure to “trip and fall” lawsuits” which have cost the City of Los Angeles millions of dollars in settlements. Staff admitted that this is a possibility and saving a dollar by doing short-term fixes today could lead to lawsuits and increased maintenance costs later.

“So, we won’t be able to do permanent repairs, and maybe if we have the right number of people we’ll be able to inspect them all, but if not the chips and people will fall where they may,” Davis noted.

Davis pressed on for what else the city loses in the budget tradeoff. By not putting funds into the CCTV system, it undercuts the city’s ability to build its “real time crime center” that had been a centerpiece of its plans to modernize policing as some cameras are just too old to be wired into the system. This led to Negrete’s suggestion to cut the alley repair program instead.

But even that change will have a long-term cost for the city. When someone reports deterioration in an alley, the city makes simple fixes that stop the cracks from growing. However, if the city doesn’t make those repairs, they will likely have to spend three or four times as much in future years.

By removing funds for the citywide facilities renewal program, the city will delay fixing city infrastructure that is already facing a $19 million deferred deficit. This will impact the city’s ability to repair things, leading to a need to replace rather than repair in the future. It was noted that infrastructure should be protected from the damage due to extreme weather, such as the floods the city experienced during winter storms this year.

Responding to a question from Negrete, the staff gave specific examples of what this could look like. For example, an air conditioner that breaks down would likely not be a high enough priority to fix even if there was enough money in the budget because the city would need to save funds for an emergency such as damage to a roof during a storm.

Responding to a question from Councilmember Jesse Zwick, Batista couldn’t confirm that SMPD could hire enough officers to fill the positions given their recent hiring history, the current 16 vacancies, and the potential retirements the department could experience.

“My question is, how helpful is it in the next fiscal year to have four more officer positions,” Zwick questioned. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t hire more officers, but should we defer maintenance to fund more officer positions we might not be able to fill….even though I would like to see the force grow.”

When questioned by Councilmember Caroline Torosis as to whether the CCTV program or more officers would be more helpful, Batista made it clear he believes they need both. He made an analogy to a person needing both pants and shoes.

Zwick also made a case to refill the budget line that funds “quick builds” at dangerous intersections, noting the low cost of using bollards and other infrastructure to make intersections more safe.

Councilmember Christine Parra moved the conversation back to the perceived benefits of onboarding more police officers. She recounted several stories she’d seen on social media or experienced in the past month.

“We can’t continue to recover and grow, and have businesses grow, if they don’t feel safe,” she concluded. “We need to do everything we can to help people feel safe and keep them safe.”

Immediately following the unanimous vote to fund the four new officer positions at SMPD at the cost of severely underfunding maintenance and repair budgets, the City Council voted 6-1 direct staff to survey Westside charter cities to determine whether or not the council salaries are too low. The survey will inform a debate at the first July meeting on whether or not to offer an amendment for the November election that would raise Council salaries.

“We want public service to be accessible to people of all income levels,” explained Councilmember Oscar de la Torre who co-sponsored the motion with Vice Mayor Negrete.

The lone dissenting vote was from Davis who commented, “We just voted to stop paving our streets, paving our alleys. I can’t imagine in good conscience we can go to the voters of this city and say, ‘but we should be paid more.’”

Damien Newton
Damien Newton
Damien is the executive director of the Southern California Streets Initiative which publishes Santa Monica Next, Streetsblog Los Angeles, Streetsblog San Francisco, Streetsblog California and Longbeachize.

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