Monday, March 23, 2009

Budget Cutting: City Council, Public Art

Writing in today's Ventura County Star, Kevin Clerici focuses on both public art and the City Council's own budget, playing out the theme that these may be mostly symbolic cuts given the magnitude of our budget problem. On public art, he paraphrased my comments to him by saying: "He (Fulton) likened the move to the council’s decision to slash its travel budget, which amounted to a few hundred dollars in the city’s $85 million operational budget."

Actually, what I told Kevin Clerici in our telephone conversation on Friday was hat cutting the City Council's entire budget, not just the travel budget, was important to show we are serious about balancing the budget.

The City Council budget is about $300,000 out of a total General Fund of $85-90 million. At my suggestion, a few weeks ago the council directed Mayor Weir to cut this budget 15-20%. The reduced budget -- to about $250,000, a cut of around 16-17% -- is on the agenda tonight.

The council budget includes our salaries (which are $600 per month and, because they are in the charter, cannot be changed except by a vote of the people); the $200 a month in local travel allowance we get; memberships to a variety of organizations (this is a good deal of the expense -- for example, belonging to the League of California Cities costs around $25,000 per year); and our own travel and training budget. Travel and training is about $28,000 per year, or about $4,000 per councilmember. The support provided to the council, and especially the mayor, by the City Manager's administrative staff is not included in the budget.

Although it's easy to hammer us for going on junkets, we're trying hard to spend our travel and training money wisely.

For example, later this week I'm going to attend the League of Cities Planners Institute in Anaheim, the most important training event of the year on planning targeted at elected City Councilmembers and appointed Planning Commissioners. In the past, I would have stayed at the conference hotel, attended the entire thing wire-to-wire, and put in for full reimbursement. That would have cost $1200-1500, including the conference fee, which is around $500.

This year, I'm only going to part of it, I'm staying at a cheaper hotel, and I'll only seek partial reimbursement from the city. It'll cost the council budget $300-400 instead of $1200-1500.

As for the public art budget, Kevin is quite right that we can't easily reprogram the money for operations. We have long since stopped funding the public art program out of the General Fund. But in so doing, we have shifted the cost of public art to a narrow base. Public art is funded with 2% of the cost of capital projects, and most of our capital projects are paid for either by your water/sewer payments (these are kept in a completely separate fund) or by the gas tax money we receive from the state for transportation projects. This is why so much of our public art winds up being on bridges or at the wastewater plant. Whether or not we can recapture some of the money currently committed for public art, and use it to stretch our capital dollars a little further on water, sewer, and transportation projects, I don't know.

It has long concerned me that the public art program is not more broadly funded. Most cities fund their public art programs with a 1% fee on all construction projects -- not just public projects but also private development projects. Now's not the time to impose that requirement, but when we come out of the recession I think it's something we should discuss. That, however, is the topic for another blog.

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