By Laura Fishman
City on a Hill Press Editor
The City of Santa Cruz is no exception among the regions suffering from the current economic meltdown.
Currently the city faces a $7 million deficit for this fiscal year, and as a result certain programs and facilities are struggling to stay alive. At the last City Council meeting on Dec. 9, council members approved the motion to cut city funding from the Beach Flats Community Center, Harvey West Pool, the Museum of Natural History and the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum.
As a result, these facilities are expected to close by February 2009 unless the city is able to come up with an alternative tax proposal or if Santa Cruz residents are able to raise enough money to keep these services running.
Council member Mike Rotkin, who voted in favor of the budget cuts, said discontinuing these programs will become vital when it comes to getting the city’s budget back in shape, but hopes to eventually restore the upkeep of these facilities.
“My least favorite day in my 42 years on the City Council was at our last meeting where we cut a bunch of programs that I spent years helping build,” Rotkin said.
But even with the de-funding of these programs, Assistant City Manager Martin Bernal predicts that the closures of these facilities will not be enough to fix the city’s economic deficit. Bernal and City Manager Dick Wilson forecast a $2.4 million gap in the budget even after the program cuts.
“This is a very difficult and scary time, unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Bernal said. “We’re doing things that we never thought we would have to do. We’ve had budget cuts before but never to the degree where we would have to close facilities.”
Still, what Bernal considers the scariest thing about the whole process is not knowing where these budget cuts will end, he said.
In addition to the closure of these facilities, the city manager has proposed to decrease spending within the city’s infrastructure by eliminating several custodial positions and reducing salary increases along with working hours among city workers.
Newly elected council member Katherine Beiers, who was sworn into office on Dec. 9 – after the budget cuts had been voted on – accepts the city manager’s proposal but described the proposed budget cuts as “painful.” She remains disappointed that the city has been forced to take such drastic measures.
“Some employees have cut their workload and their paychecks by 10 percent, which is really hard,” Beiers said. “I don’t like it and I wish there were other ways of dealing with it.”
But even in such hard times, city officials are still seeking new ways to generate revenue. One idea is to create a new tax that would allocate money toward the needed sectors and to prevent additional cuts from being made.
“We’re looking at the possibility of some additional taxes,” Rotkin said. “We would like to set up a process that would get the whole community involved in developing the most sensible new tax for the city of Santa Cruz.”
While the city does not have the power to mandate new taxes, it is likely that voters will set up a local ballot initiative to raise their own taxes in order to preserve programs that are losing city funding, Bernal said.
“It all comes down to the voters,” Bernal said. “Are they willing to pay more to restore some of these programs or not?”
The residents of Santa Cruz only hope the city’s economic situation will improve, but Bernal is not very optimistic.
Regarding the economy, Bernal said, “We don’t see the situation necessarily getting better, only getting worse.”
The Santa Cruz City Council will resume the discussion of the city budget for the current fiscal year at the scheduled meeting on Jan. 13, in the Council Chamber at 809 Center St. There will be a public commenting period.