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City Restores $6.4 Million in Budget Cuts; Free Playground Program, Crossing Guards Axed

Bob Kronovetrealty
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Santa Monica

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By Jorge Casuso

May 27, 2020 -- The City Council on Tuesday approved $6.4 million to restore programs slashed after the coronavirus shutdown battered the local economy but did not include a popular free playground program and school crossing guards.

The restored programs and services -- staffed with 17 permanent positions -- are part of a government overhaul to address a looming $224 million budget deficit and are bankrolled with $2 million set aside by the Council and other City and Federal funds.

The approved plan restores two major afterschool programs, opens park recreational facilities and provides aid to vulnerable tenants ("City Releases Plan to Restore Programs Slashed Due to Coronavirus Shutdown," May 22, 2020).

The plan proposed by staff, said Mayor Kevin McKeown, "creatively leveraged scarce resources to reduce cuts in key city programs."

"These restorations are a wise use of limited funds" and "demonstrate that even amidst a pandemic and economic collapse, local government can effectively address people’s greatest needs and build toward a bright future.”

The lion's share of the funding provides more than $3.85 million in housing assistance and staffing to keep as many as 450 seniors in their rent-controlled apartments and help 307 low-and moderate income tenants pay their rent for three months.

The plan also reopens recreational facilities, restores a partnership with the School District that allows the use of playgrounds in six school sites and restores programming at the Santa Monica Swim Center.

The CREST Club, which provides afterschool care for children, received $129,396, while $133,996 was approved to allow the Police Activities League (PAL) Youth Center to increase its hours.

Despite pleas in writing from two dozen parents, the Council chose not to restore a popular afterschool program that provided free supervised play for 1,835 school children in grades one through five.

Several parents were baffled by the move to cut the City's most used playground program.

"Why are you doing this," wrote Andy Ross. "It makes no sense when one considers the amount of children who are affected."

Tricia Crane, who helped launch the program more than 20 years ago, seemed equally baffled.

"What is the staff's goal here?" she asked in a letter to the Council. "Why do they want to take away recreational access? Do they hope to force children into paid childcare programs?

"The school playgrounds are a critical public resource in a city so lacking in open park space," Crane said.

An unsuccessful effort was also mounted to restore school crossing guards, with 858 people signing an online petition as of 6 p.m. Wednesday.

"There were 40 crossing guards in Santa Monica in 2019-20 serving 9 elementary schools and 2 middle schools," the petition posted on by neighborhood activist Zina Josephs reads.

"The starting annual salary was about $20,000, and the average salary was about $27,000."

The petition notes that in 2018, 49 Santa Monica police officers made more than $300,000 in total pay and benefits, with 11 of them making more than $400,000.

"If two or three of the following SMPD officers retired, the savings could probably pay for the entire Crossing Guard program," reads the petition, which lists each of the salaries.

"Children's safety is essential," wrote Larry Arreola as his reason for signing. "Cut City Hall salaries if necessary."

School Board member Oscar de la Torre wrote, "Crossing guards have kept my children safe on the most important journey -- walking to and from school."

The Council voted to approve $167,724 in funding to restore Vision Zero, a program that helps cut down on roadway fatalities by assessing the cause of accidents and installing street improvements to enhance safety.

"Safety is the biggest barrier to non-auto travel, and our roads reflect decades of auto-centric planning and construction," staff wrote in its report.

"Making our streets safer reduces City risk exposure and associated costs, while also furthering sustainability goals by reducing greenhouse gas emissions."

Other sustainability programs that were restored include water conservation, bankrolled with $144,990 from the water fund, and "climate resiliency," funded with $183,000 from the general fund.

The later funding restores a Sustainability Analyst to advance the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan ("Santa Monica Adopts $800 Million Plan to Fight Climate Change," May 29, 2019).

The $800 million 10-year plan to fight climate change is likely the most costly and ambitious initiative of its kind for a city its size in the nation.

The Council also earmarked $228,000 in restored funding to maintain the shuttered Civic Auditorium, which "will remain closed for business."

The Council will hold a Budget Study session to review the complete fiscal year budget on June 9 and is slated to adopt the budget at its meeting June 23.

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