First published in the June 24 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.
As the City Council recently moved forward to unanimously approve a budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, some residents raised concerns about the use of about $6 million in federal COVID relief funds, of which $1 million has already been spent.
The residents brought up issues of transparency and communication as well as concerns about spending the funds on traditional policing instead of on other areas such as affordable housing and childcare.
Ella Hushagen, who is on the city’s natural resources and environmental commission, said she wished residents would have been better informed about the budget process.
“I don’t think that these proposals were the products of a meaningful stakeholder process,” she said.
Hushagen said she looked forward to participating with suggestions on the use of COVID relief funds back in June 2021. She later contacted the city manager’s office this past January about an update on the COVID funds and was told they would be part of the budget process.
Then, on April 27, there was a staff memo sent out asking for input about how to spend the COVID funds that listed about $1.3 million in proposals, and affordable housing was listed as a possible way to spend some of the money.
However, a special finance commission meeting held on May 16 had the same language from the April 27 memo, Hushagen said.
On May 23, there was another meeting of the finance commission, and it stated the same uses for COVID relief funds, she added.
Two days later, there was a special meeting of the City Council, and she said it was the first time a proposal outlined spending about $4 million on infrastructure and IT projects, employee retention and MOU negotiations.
“Nothing about affordable housing,” she said. “So, May 25 was the first opportunity we had to understand that there would be no funding for affordable housing as part of the COVID recovery funding,” she said.
Then, on June 1, the City Council met to discuss the budget.
“By that time, all of the COVID relief funds were allocated to various projects, save for $200,000,” Hushagen said. “So this just shows that this is not a meaningful process for people to participate. But we’re here tonight and we’re participating and we’re asking that you please put pause on this. You have time. You don’t have to appropriate the funds until 2024 and you don’t have to spend them until 2026.”
Hushagen added, “This sham process that was in place here is emblematic of the entire budget, so it’s not a meaningful community process if, by the time public hearings are held, the only changes we can make to the budget are marginal, around the corners, around the edges.”
She said this was the third budget process she’d been involved with. “And I’m always too early or too late,” she told the council. “I want you to do better.”
Resident Caitlin Hainoff said the city has an “amazing opportunity” with the remaining COVID federal funding to make significant improvements in its residents’ lives. She pointed out that $70,000 is earmarked to buy tasers for the police department, but no funds are slated to help the needs of 53% of South Pasadena’s residents who are renters with any assistance program. She said the money could be spent on a robust rental-assistance program, a housing resource center, expanded childcare and creation of a position to handle the city’s anti-racist policy, she said.
Hainoff also said the City Council should work to alleviate rising rent burdens and prevent more individuals from entering homelessness.
Other callers speaking virtually said the COVID funds should be used to address homelessness and for childcare services, which would be part of a suggested budget by Care First South Pasadena, a coalition of residents formed in the summer of 2020 after George Floyd’s murder during the pandemic.
The group wants to “enhance social services, rethink public safety by developing effective alternatives to policing, and increase transparency and accountability of the South Pasadena Police Department,” according to Care First South Pasadena’s website.
One caller said the city is using the COVID money as its “slush fund.”
A subject that was brought up by some speakers was a lack of public input regarding the proposed budget.
City Manager Arminé Chaparyan said the city actually increased the level of outreach and engagement with the new budget. City staff members held “about a half a dozen” meetings including a workshop before the City Council and Finance Commission. She said the city also set up a webpage with information about the budget as well as Instagram stories. There has also been information on Facebook and other social-media platforms.
Chaparyan said she has sat down personally with Care First representatives to discuss their concerns about the budget.
“We are always open to having additional dialogue and conversations with any members of our public,” she said, adding she felt the city did make extra efforts to increase the transparency of the process and will continue to do so in the future.
Mayor Pro Tem Jon Primuth said he thought the council was making a strategic move by investing in technology because it will improve city staff’s work since it’s investing not just in teamwork, but data reporting, including online permitting information so city officials can see how the city is growing, making sure the city is providing needed services.
He acknowledged that Care First representatives had some good budget ideas, but he knows the city has equipment needs in various city departments.
“I look at it as my job [on City Council] to make sure they’re not operating with antiquated, broken-down equipment,” Primuth said.
While some expressed concerns about using the COVID funds for salaries, Primuth said he and other council members knew it was going toward an ongoing expense, adding that his five years on the school board taught him the significance of that.
However, it’s also important to invest in the city workforce.
“[We want to] make sure we have a competitive work environment to attract talent and keep talent,” he said, adding there were “some hard choices” in the budget process.
Responding to a speaker who said the city doesn’t provide any direct services to residents, Councilwoman Evelyn Zneimer said that, in the new budget, there is $200,000 reserved for mental-health services.
“We are empathic [about] the mental and emotional state of our residents should they need services or help from the city,” she said, adding she does support the police department’s use of license-plate readers, included in the new budget, something at least one resident who spoke did not support, because it does help trace smash-and-grab criminals who cross communities.
She said many communities around South Pasadena have that technology.
“So, we are handicapped,” she said.
Councilwoman Diana Mahmud said that affordable housing is important to her. While this is a “macro-level” issue, involving state and federal levels, the city of South Pasadena could be involved under SB 381, introduced by state Sen. Anthony Portantino, that may allow the city to acquire some of the 68 homes that were purchased by CalTrans for the failed 710 connector project and turn them into low- or medium-income housing.
“It’s a small contribution relative to the need, but it’s a start,” she said.
Councilman Jack Donovan said council members this year had to look at the short term when making their budget decisions. “What was good for the city, as a whole, in the near future was behind my decision,” he said.
Mayor Michael Cacciotti said he took to heart what all of the speakers brought up during the meeting.
“We’ve got a multiplicity of issues in this city. When you look at the big picture, we are stewards of this budget,” he said.
He did acknowledge that the city should try different outreach strategies in future years, to which Chaparyan agreed.