A Thankful City

Thanksgiving

2016 gave Santa Monica a lot to be thankful for. SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a responsible tomorrow) would like to highlight those we feel are particularly praise worthy.

First, the important improvements in mobility were especially gratifying since they provided something for everyone. Pedestrians got the glam Esplanade (squiggly paving and all) and the quixotic scrambles people are still learning to use. Bicyclists got a year of successful Bike Sharing (Breeze) which potentially can take 1,000 cars off the road each day. Cars got the reopened California Incline, and finally Expo got an increase in the frequency of trains making it easier to enter and exit our crowded city. While these are all necessary conditions, they are not yet sufficient to solve our serious mobility conundrums: our downtown is still gridlocked, pedestrians and bicyclists are tragically hit by vehicles all too often, and all of our boulevards still grind to a halt every afternoon. But we are making measured progress, which is important since this is something that affects everyone and even small improvements can, over the long run, return substantial benefits. We owe a debt of gratitude to everyone who put their shoulder to the wheel, so to speak, to make our city move a little better. Vintage filtered lifeguard tower at sunset.

Another peak on the gratitude meter was all of the breakthroughs in preservation this year. From the biggest to the smallest building, preservation made significant gains this year. The San Vicente Boulevard Historical District was established covering seven blocks and 26 apartment buildings in a multitude of styles from Colonial Revival to Mid Century Modern. The beloved landmarked old post office was adaptively reused as a production office and the Shotgun House ended its 17-year diaspora and finally found a home next to the Ocean Park Library. It takes a village to save even the tiniest building. SMa.r.t. is grateful to everyone who put in the countless hours and money to protect our architectural heritage and this augers well for future battles. The threatened Busy Bee Hardware, the oldest continually operating business in Santa Monica, will be one such battle.

But mobility and preservation, among other important goals, take lots of money and we are grateful that Santa Monicans are willing to tax themselves for the common good. The passage of Propositions V, GS and GSH, signal a willingness to invest in the bedrock issues of housing and education. While these imperfect taxes and bonds are regressive and very expensive ways to raise money, particularly from our already stretched residents, they are better than our city always going to developers, hat in hand to try to squeeze them for concessions to fund desired City expenses. A steady stream of dedicated income for the City is always better than the erratic fund fluctuations of the real estate development cycle.

Propositions GS-GSH will raise about $7 million a year which translates to 14 to 20 new affordable units every year (more if they are rehabbed instead of built new.) This is a small, but steady and compounding stream of affordable housing which makes a modest but predictable dent on the hundreds of affordable units lost each year to demolitions and vacancy decontrol. Prop V will keep the Santa Monica College growing albeit with its many known negative impacts on the immediate adjacent areas, but it is essential to our children’s and returning student’s education since the nourishment of human capital is the one thing (after health and safety) that is the most important reason for a city’s existence.

In that spirit of developing human capital two other initially unconnected items are important. First the City voted to require all new single family residences starting in 2017 to be energy neutral (eg. produce as much energy as they consume). Today this means rooftop photovoltaic solar collectors, but nascent technologies (geothermal, smart windows, etc.) will also come into play in the future. The ability to produce decentralized energy locally helps our necessary conversion to electric cars which will have many beneficial ripple effects from quieter streets, to cleaner air (equals healthier residents) to slowing sea level rise which is starting to eat our precious beach.

The second human capital benefit is the new playing fields the City is starting to design both at the airport and at 4th and Pico. In our park- and playing-field-starved city, these future improvements will make our sports programs and our high school all function as they should, instead of being often the last thing on the agenda in an already impacted city

And sadly, we are grateful for the late Tom Hayden and Bill Bauer. From the Port Huron Statement written by Tom, to the 700 hard hitting editorials written by Bill, both of these seemingly-unrelated Santa Monica luminaries had one thing in common: the rare bravery to speak truth to power. We are thankful for their decades of unremunerated courageous public service and for the big shoes they left us to fill.

Finally SMa.r.t. is grateful for all our faithful readers who have read our weekly column, and wish you and your families the time this Thanksgiving to appreciate everything good about your lives!

By Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA for Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow

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THE CITY THAT ATE ITS TAXPAYERS

Municipal Salaries

Earlier this week, CBS2 Los Angeles aired an investigative story on the municipal salaries in Santa Monica. They labeled the story “Small Town, Big Pay”. It included alarming information about the City of Santa Monica’s pay structure for its employees. You can watch the story via CBS Los Angeles. This information may be disturbing to the uninitiated. For years we have been sounding the alarm on the high percentage of our city budget that is allotted for salaries. In fact, 72% of our city’s general operating fund will be used for payroll this year.

The television story only scratched the surface of the high compensation packages paid to at-will and to union municipal employees. Our Police Chief won the gold medal for our highest paid employee (and the state’s highest paid police chief) with an annual compensation package of $478,120.00. In contrast, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck grosses $351,691.51 annually.

One hundred sixty-eight Santa Monica employees had higher salary plus benefits packages in 2015 than did California Governor Jerry Brown, who grossed $261,774.59. That’s right – 168 of your employees made more than the Governor Of California. As in other California cities, our city employees are highly trained, responsive and very good at their jobs. Many work long hours to provide our residents with outstanding service. However, every city, no matter what the pay scale, feels their employees are outstanding. The question remains, how much must Santa Monica pay for “outstanding” staff?

The research director of Transparent California, Robert Fellner, authorized us to reprint an excerpt of his latest blog post below. It’s about our abnormally high salaries and the potential consequences of this trend.

Santa Monica tops statewide list for a variety of jobs:

  • Police Chief: $478,000, highest statewide.
  • Police Sergeant: $475,546 highest statewide. At $393,603, $385,000 and $380,000, Santa
  • Monica police sergeants also occupied the 4th, 6th and 7th highest spots on the statewide list.
  • Deputy Police Chief: $455,914, highest statewide.
  • Assistant city attorney: $442,414, highest statewide.
  • Assistant city manager: $440,661, highest statewide.
  • City attorney: $439,969, 2nd highest statewide.

Two more anecdotal examples:

  • Farmers’ Market Supervisor: $142,903.
  • Assistant City Librarian: $220,558.

This excess is pervasive throughout the city, with Santa Monica outspending its peers in total department wide spending as well:
Spending on attorneys (includes assistants and deputy city attorneys)

  • Long Beach: $4.75 million for 28 attorneys at an average cost of $170,000.
  • Anaheim: $4.45 million for 24 attorneys at an average cost of $185,000.
  • Santa Monica: $7.55 million for 29 attorneys at an average cost of: $260,417.

In total, Santa Monica spends 59% and 70% more on attorneys than their much larger neighboring cities.

Perhaps most compelling is what Santa Monica spends on transit, which is the city’s largest department both in raw dollar terms and number of workers — with bus drivers accounting for more than 13% of the city’s entire workforce.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median city transit bus driver in the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale metropolitan area earns a wage of around $39,000. The median Santa Monica bus driver makes $59,000 in regular pay — which excludes overtime, other pay and benefits.

This disparity is then amplified via overtime and retirement benefits based on a regular salary that is already 50% higher than the market wage for other city transit bus drivers in the Los Angeles area.

Adding benefits, overtime and other pay increases the compensation package for the median Santa Monica bus driver to $111,585 — with the highest earning just under $168,000.

Finally, at $3,200 per resident, Santa Monica is tied with Beverly Hills for spending more on employee compensation than any other city in California. On average, California cities spend $480 annually per resident.

Fairness

Our government is spending other people’s money. Everyone would love to see all bus drivers earn over $100,000, but it’s the definition of unfairness to take money from those earning much less to fund lavish pay and benefits for a select few.

The impact

Santa Monica’s roughly $300 million in employee compensation accounts for 72% of the entire General Fund operating budget. This goes a long way to explaining why Santa Monica has some of the highest taxes in the nation, such as:

  • 10.25% sales tax
  • 10% utility tax
  • 14% hotel tax
  • 10% parking tax

Consequently, when the next funding need comes up — be it paving roads, bailing out pensions in the event of a market downturn, etc. — the City will likely have to hike their already record high taxes yet again.

But when that tax hike comes, taxpayers have a right to know its true cause: the high percentage of our city’s general operating fund that is used for salaries.

Santa Monica’s General Operating Fund, FY16

santa-monica-operating-budget-2016-piechart
The high cost of compensation comes with inherent disparity and risk. We are not advocating that services to our residents be eliminated or reduced. We do need to cut payroll. We need to ask: are our professionals well paid or are they excessively paid?

Let’s eliminate the excessive use of overtime to staff our public safety departments, and cut down the enormous amount spent on overtime pay. This has been a long-term problem in Santa Monica and is detrimental to the health and welfare of these essential employees. The salaries of upper management (at will) employees must be controlled. Their pay should be commensurate with similar posts in comparable California cities. Santa Monica must initiate an independent review of overstaffing and overtime in each department.

It’s our city and our staff. You can be ambivalent and ignore this issue or you can rise up and demand action. Write our City Manager at Rick.Cole@smgov.net and our city Council at Council@smgov.net. Ask for a comprehensive, independent audit. Demand that overtime costs be controlled. Most importantly, lets make sure that there is no correlation between the extraordinarily high city payroll and the perceived need for increasing new development in Santa Monica.

Transparent California lists the salaries of every public agency in our state. We appreciate Mr. Fellner lending us his words for publication.

Phil Brock for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

 

The High Cost of Learning

Santa Monica College

Santa Monica residents are tasked with the economic burden of financing a city that supports not just its 94,000 residents, but also the daily 200,000-plus tourists and workers who fill our community. Many of the students who attend Santa Monica College (SMC) also come in from outside our city. This burden on our emergency responders – our police and fire department, is disproportionate to the number of actual residents and impacts response times and efficiency.

We are a generous community with a big heart but one wonders how much stress our heart can take before we need a “bypass.” We are being asked to increase that stress by donating almost two acres of our civic center land for the purpose of allowing SMC to build an Early Childhood Education Center (ECEC). The rent for this facility for the next 55 years would be only $1 per year. On top of that our city would give them $5 million to start the project.

Only after the insistence of one city council member, have up to 30 percent of the 110 available openings in the ECEC now been promised for children of residents. The remainder of the slots will be allotted for children of city employees, Rand, and SMC staff. City council has already twice approved increases in area and height to the ECEC. The section of the current Civic Center Parking Lot to be occupied by the facility is now infringing upon that of the long-promised playing fields for residents and for over 3,000 teens at Samohi whose sports facilities are cramped or off campus. Eliminating the ECEC would give our high school the open space it deserves and better serve all of our residents.

With a declining child population, the decision to continue moving forward with the ECEC at the Civic Center is questionable. The Santa Monica Malibu School District (SMMUSD) has recently revamped three new early childhood education programs, two in Santa Monica and one in Malibu. SMC could conduct their “laboratory” programs at the School District’s existing ECEC’s. And as a new bond, Measure V, has been approved for SMC construction wouldn’t it be more sensible for the college to use those bond dollars on their own campus rather than on a project that would create more traffic on 4th Street and the downtown corridors? There is already constant construction going on at the Broad Theatre site on 11th Street, the Center for Media & Design building on Stewart Street, and development plans for a Malibu campus. We are a heartbeat away from an economic, environmental and sustainability “heart attack” or “stroke.”

The California Community College system is one of the truly great educational benefits that, with few restrictions, is accessible to all Californians. It offers an economical transition from the high school level to the university level, as well as providing a second chance for many who could not afford to initially pursue a higher degree. The system provides emeritus classes for seniors as well. However, SMC has outgrown its mandate as a community college. Originally it was intended to serve its immediate community. SMC has instead become so successful that students from throughout the world use it as a stepping-stone to our universities. The college proudly advertises its reputation as having highest transfer rate to local universities.

With only about 4 percent of the 34,000 students coming from its home district of Santa Monica/Malibu, SMC’s main focus and function is no longer that of a community college. SMC’s Bundy campus is actually in Los Angeles, for example, not Santa Monica. The impact of housing the large majority of the students from out of district has a tremendous impact on our residential rental stock, causing increased commuter traffic and congestion. Is it fair to place the economic burden and negative environmental impact on Santa Monica’s residents when the college serves so many from outside the city?

Most people are unaware that SMC educational facilities are exempt from local zoning and building regulations, community input, and design reviews, answering instead only to the Division of the State Architect for all permitting and approvals. For example, if SMC owns or leases land zoned for two or three stories, the State may still approve their request for a four or five story structure. A case in point might be the Broad Theatre Complex on a former elementary school site adjacent to a residential area. The Broad, essentially a high activity commercial facility, would likely not have been approved were it to have been subjected to City zoning. However, it secured a lease on SMMUSD land and the project was subsequently approved by the State with additional projects planned for the site.

SMC is a wonderful educational facility, providing a second chance for some and for others an economical stepping stone to the university level, but it is now confronting its own expanding waistline, seeking even more with a ravenous appetite for growth and what seems to be higher aspirations to perhaps become a four year college. The burden for residents is one of increased hardship, economic, environmental, with stress on infrastructure and commuter traffic, and housing demand on our rental stock. One has to wonder if the community can continue to sustain and finance such growth

Robert H. Taylor AIA for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

A Tale of Two Cities

Land Use Voter Empowerment, Planning

A Tale of Two Cities

Santa Monica is two cities, one of 94,000 residents and another of 175,000 tourists, students, and employees, and increasing yearly. It consists of 5 basic industries – the tourism industry (3,500 existing hotel rooms with another 1,150 pending approval), expanding medical (UCLA & St. John’s – UCLA owns 20 properties and purchasing more!), educational (Santa Monica College expansion), media and arts (Silicon Beach), and automotive industries (although automotive is shrinking).

However, there are limits to growth – limits to tourism, students, and employees. Although as a city we have consciously addressed the issue of sustainability, it is proving to be more lip service than providing the infrastructure needed – an elementary school for a growing downtown population, updated codes that enable new construction to meet state environmental codes by 2030, a homeless issue that requires expanding policing and fire resources, etc. And we need to recognize that although tourism is essential in our city’s makeup, we’re slowly losing our beach with climate change and rising sea levels a near future reality. Santa Monica won’t be as popular if we look like Miami Beach!

And needless to say, we need a realistic plan to control burgeoning traffic. With the two major additions recently completed – Expo and Incline – traffic is worse, not better. With Expo, our city council finds the excuse to add density and height, but why when workers can now commute from Culver City or the Crenshaw district?

What is really unfortunate is our city’s lack of foresight in providing a master plan decades ago or even one today. And moreover, recently the city chose painstakingly to alter a zoning code written in the 1980’s instead of providing a creative form-based code relevant to today’s planning issues.

The LUCE, adopted in 2010, is a general plan and doesn’t address the specifics a master plan would. For instance a master plan would address the appropriate expansion of these five industries. A master plan will control the influence of money and power and would guide the city instead of battling the shortage of housing and soaring rents one project at a time.

Without a master plan, there is a disturbing lack of transparency couple with a huge amount of power from out-of-state corporate and global developers. Instead of the community fashioning a coherent master plan, business interests have taken over in piecemeal fashion with the blessing of the city council willing to support corporate profits in exchange for modest community benefits. An example of this would be the removal of 109 affordable housing units in exchange for a 5 story, 365 unit project (including 38 affordable units) in a one and two story neighborhood where the city will realize $2.4m in community benefits while the developer sold his approval to a Texas developer funded by the Florida State Teachers pension fund for $68m!!

Instead, a master plan would address the need for a downtown urban plaza or possibly mid-block walking and shopping arcades or the feasibility or not of activity centers such as low-rise retail villages around existing markets, or the feasibility of relocating the BBB yards to the Bergamot public yards and re-purposing the downtown site with workforce and affordable housing.

And we need to stop “quietly” altering residential lots to commercial use, or allowing a developer with a project up for approval to wipe out a councilwoman’s campaign debt, or currently developing a downtown specific plan that effectively removes citizen review of large projects. The city needs to look at the interests of citizens first and developers second!

So what is the answer? Without a master plan or realistic zoning code, how will we meld both “cities” – we need both perspectives, not just one primarily focused on tourism. We need to determine what we are and what we want to become in 2050, and when do we reach our growth limits. And we need to start this process now by getting out and voting – Santa Monica, you know what to do!!

Ron Goldman on behalf of SMa.r.t.