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Council Narrows Focus on Top Priorities

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By Jorge Casuso

March 15, 2021 -- Addressing homelessness and ensuring public spaces are clean and safe are the two top priories that will guide tough budget decisions in Santa Monica over the next two years.

At a special retreat session Saturday, the Council also included an "equitable and inclusive economic recovery" to the short list of priorities approved on a 4 to 3 vote.

The sharp focus on homelessness and public safety came after residents overwhelming chose the two issues as their top priorities in a survey conducted by the City ("Santa Monica Council to Set Budget Priorities," March 12, 2021).

Councilmember Phil Brock -- who rode the issues to a first place finish in November -- noted that they have topped the list of resident concerns for the past several years.

"Residents strongly feel that we have to find a way to make our streets and parks safe," Brock said. "As a City we can no longer be reactive. We have to be proactive in addressing resident concerns."

Mayor Sue Himmelrich, who made the successful motion to shorten the list of concerns to homelessness and "clean and safe neighborhoods," said she didn't view them "as an issue of crime" but agreed that residents don't feel safe.

She noted the City had limited resources and urged the Council to narrow its focus to the issues "where we want to make a significant difference over the next two years.

"We need to be focused, and we need to be focused on the tragedy of the past few years, which is homelessness," Himmelrich said.

Himmelrich and Brock were joined in the narrow majority vote by new Counclmembers Oscar de la Torre and Christine Parra.

Longtime Councilmembers Kevin McKeown and Gleam Davis, along with Kristin McCowan, cast the three opposing votes after their calls for expanding the list failed..

The short list was chosen from seven proposed priorities the Council normally winnows down to the five that will help guide its budget decisions.

Davis said she disagreed with the narrow focus, but her motion to include making Santa Monica "equitable and socially just" as well as "sustainable," failed to win a second.

She said that to “intertwine” homelessness and crime was "unfair, inappropriate and untrue" and worried that "none of this matters if we have 120 degree days" due to climate change.

McKeown agreed, saying he was "appalled" by the exclusion of climate change from the list, calling it "the existential crisis of our time."

But Councilmember Oscar de la Torre argued that it was was unnecessary to include sustainability as a top priority because "it is a part of our culture in the city.

"Not putting it in there doesn't mean it's not going to happen," he said. The issue "doesn't need its own separate point."

De la Torre stressed the need to crack down on "lewd," "violent" and "inappropriate" behavior, saying he "didn't see the word 'enforcement' show up one time."

"We need to have the resources to enforce (the) rules," he said. "We need to express support for the people in the front lines."

De la Torre also pushed to include "equity and inclusiveness" as a top priority that would guide everything from City hiring to educational opportunities.

The Council voted to tie the two to the City's "economic recovery" from the coronavirus shutdown after Interim City Manager Lane Dilg noted the issue did not appear among the three priorities.

In addressing homelessness, the City will work to "prevent housed Santa Monicans from becoming homeless" and "address the behavioral health needs of vulnerable individuals."

It also will "advocate for regional capacity to address homelessness and maintain access to safe, fun, and healthy open spaces."

Ensuring Santa Monica is clean and safe will entail creating "an atmosphere marked by clean and safe public spaces and neighborhoods," according to the Council motion.

The priorities will first be used by the Council an April 13, when it allocates $26.7 million in federal stimulus funding, officials said ("EXTRA -- Santa Monica to Receive Nearly $27 Million in Federal Relief Funding," March 8, 2021).

The money will be used "within the allowable areas outlined in the bill and over a four year period," officials said.

The aid will also allow revenues from local taxes generated by Measure GSH approved by voters in 2016 that will be restored to support affordable housing.

The Fiscal Year 2021-23 budget book will be available to the public on May 10, followed by a biennial budget study session on May 25, officials said. The final budget adoption is set for June 22.

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