After two sparsely attended community meetings to discuss the budget gap South Pasadena faces that could reach more than $1 million this coming fiscal year, city officials are now urging residents to take part in an online survey.

City officials attached major significance to the outreach program because the budget gap may require cuts to services and an increase in taxes as well as new taxes.

Moreover, the city is looking at the budget over the next five years but it’s the next budget cycle that needs solutions now since an official balanced budget should be in place by July 1. The city’s fiscal year runs from July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020.

However, after two community meetings – one on the evening of March 13, where 17 people attended and another on March 24, a Sunday afternoon, where 11 people showed – city officials are now asking residents to take an online survey in the comfort of their own home.

“In addition to gathering input at community meetings, the city launched an online survey to get feedback on solutions to the city’s budget deficit,” John Pope, So Pas public information officer, said in an email to The Review. “It is important to us that as many residents weigh in as possible so we can get a good cross-section of community opinion. The survey asks residents for opinions on a range of possible revenue enhancements as well as potential cuts in city services to balance a projected budget gap of as much as $1 million. We understand that our residents lead busy lives and may not be able to participate in person during the community meetings. The survey is a quicker option and should take residents less than 10 minutes to complete.”

Residents can access the survey by going to the city’s website, southpasadenaca.gov, and clicking on the icon “Take the Community Budget Survey.”

Pope said the city was disappointed in the turnout for the community meetings but is confident the tide will turn when officials visit specific groups such as Rotary, Kiwanis and Women Involved in South Pasadena Political Action (WISPPA), to name just a few.

Back on Feb. 20, the City Council gave its unanimous approval to develop a plan to include the public in budget discussions that will require cuts to services. The city is also looking at ways to raise revenues by increasing or adding taxes, like increasing the sales tax or adding a public safety parcel tax.

City officials explained the necessity for the public’s inclusion in the budget deliberations in a recent staff report presented to the City Council.

“Staff recommends a robust community engagement program to review all potential options, identify preferred alternatives and inform future strategies.,” the report states. “A financial model will be presented to the community establishing the baseline gap for each year and outlining the potential budget impact of a variety of budget cuts and revenue enhancements, allowing residents to test a variety of options and scenarios. Through the community engagement process, staff anticipates gaining perspective on those options, or combination of options, that receive the greatest support from the community. That feedback will then be used to guide the development of a long-range Financial Sustainability Plan to be presented to Council as part of the annual budget in June.”

Even Mayor Dr. Marina Khubesrian weighed in publicly on the importance of including the public during these budget talks at a recent City Council meeting.

“I want to point out a couple of things,” Khubesrian said from the podium. “This is a very robust budget-information-to-the-community proposal. Of note, this is a first for our City Council. It’s the first I’ve seen since I’ve been on the council to have the outreach plan laid out in such a thorough manner, so everything looks predictable and transparent and the community knows what to expect and where they can go to hear the information that staff will present about our budget, any shortfalls and opportunities for increased revenues.”

At the first community meeting at the South Pasadena Public Library’s Community Room, it was stated that the budget gap could increase to possibly as much as $2 million for the upcoming year.

The gap is being driven, in large measure, by increased liability due to pension costs as well as unexpected infrastructure needs, such as a $3-million water treatment plant to keep up with more stringent state water requirements.

The fact is, according to City Manager Stephanie DeWolfe and Finance Director Craig Koehler, the budget has too many variables at this time to be specific about the exact size of the gap.

The survey contains recommendations for increasing revenue that includes installing parking meters in the business district of Fair Oaks Avenue and Mission Street ($245,000 a year); impose a retail cannabis tax, which would involve changing the law because cannabis is illegal in So Pas ($48,000 a year); tax short-term rentals such as Airbnb’s ($50,000 a year); tax on visitors to small boutique hotels, which doesn’t exist now ($930,000); enhance recreational opportunities in the Arroyo Seco Golf Course (unknown revenue); and maximize use of city parking lots (unknown revenue).

The survey asks respondents to indicate the level of support for any of the items, from 1 being strongly oppose to 6 being strongly support.

The survey also recommends a hike in the sales tax by 0.75 cents per $100 of sales (about $1.5 million a year) and a new public safety parcel like the one in neighboring San Marino ($947,000 a year at a cost to landowners of $24 – $384 per parcel, depending on the size).

The survey also recommends ways to trim expenses by reducing video production quality of City Council meetings (savings of $25,000 a year); eliminating crime prevention programs such as women’s self-defense courses and neighborhood watch ($26,000 savings a year); reducing the purchase of library books ($40,000 savings a year); reducing lawn maintenance and trash pickup at city facilities from weekly to bimonthly, ($70,000 savings a year); eliminating the police cadet program ($60,000 savings a year); eliminating special events like Concerts in the Park ($25,000 savings a year); and reducing teen center activities and events along with classes for seniors ($25,000 savings a year).

DeWolfe said there would be no full-time employees affected but part-time employees could lose their jobs.

DeWolfe also has continually said that the city’s financial gap is a modest one compared to other cities in the state.

However, she also mentioned that if the city wanted to expedite some of the tax proposals requiring ballot measures it would have to declare a fiscal emergency.

“I am hesitant to do that because of the message it sends,” she said.

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Steve Whitmore is the editor for the South Pasadena Review. Steve has spent more than four decades as an award-winning print and broadcast journalist with a 16-year stint as the senior media advisor for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Steve comes to us from the Keene Sentinel in Keene, New Hampshire, where he covered politics and was a columnist.

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