Facing a $4.36 million budget gap due to the coronavirus pandemic, Santa Maria city officials are proposing budget cuts that include keeping the public library closed through September and eliminating more than 30 positions across various departments.
The proposed 2020-22 budget, which will be finalized and adopted during a public hearing at the City Council's June 16 meeting, takes into account an estimated $10.8 million loss in General Fund monies over the next two fiscal years, along with other losses.
"This is our best estimate as we prepared this document. Also unknown is what, if any, state or federal aid package will be provided for Santa Maria, as well as the timing of any relief. For the city, this situation is sounding alarm bells," City Manager Jason Stilwell said in a budget letter.
As part of the 347-page proposal, the Santa Maria Public Library would remain closed through September, and the majority of the library's employees would be furloughed during that time period.
The positions include 10 full-time, eight part-time, and 30 limited-service positions, with limited service defined as positions working under 1,000 hours per fiscal year.
The public library's main location and branches have been closed since March 17 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The proposed budget also outlines plans to defund a number of vacant library positions over the next two fiscal years, including six limited-service positions, two part-time positions and one full-time position.
Delaying the reopening of the Paul Nelson Aquatic Center until 2021 is another possibility presented in the proposal, which would result in defunding five full-time positions, 10 limited-service positions and one part-time position.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the city has imposed a hiring freeze and furloughed 93 limited-service employees in various departments, including 68 working in Recreation and Parks, two in Community Development, one in the City Manager's Office and 22 working at the public library's main locations and branches.
According to the proposed budget, continued closures and further furloughs would allow city officials to fund existing programs and infrastructure without having to completely deplete the city's Local Economic Augmentation Fund and money needed for future disasters.
Even with the precautions, the virus could lead to unprecedented use of the city's reserves. A City Council decision to use rainy day funds may be necessary, but "this choice carries great responsibility and long-lasting consequences," the budget reads.
"This direction would exhaust [the Local Economic Augmentation Fund] of its remaining $4.7 million in 2020-21, and also appropriate millions from the General Fund economic stabilization reserve – the first time it’s been tapped," it continues.
Santa Maria's fire and police departments are set to receive the highest budget allocations, with police set to receive 42.4% of the General Fund and fire set to receive 20.2%.
However, both departments could be affected by proposed cuts, with plans for defunding and the elimination of several positions over the two-year budget period.
For the Santa Maria Fire Department, the cuts would eliminate one response unit and defund seven firefighting positions, according to the proposed budget.
Santa Maria Firefighters Local 2020, the department's union, shared concerns about the impacts of the proposed cuts on their Facebook page, saying it "misses the mark."
"The community deserves more in these challenging times, which is why we are requesting your support to oppose service level reductions in the Fire Department," the statement said.
While the Police Department is allocated funding in 2021 to maintain 11 sworn and non-sworn positions, including officers, a corporal, records technicians and dispatchers, the positions would be eliminated by the end of 2022, along with several other vacant positions, according to the budget.
Editor's note: This article was updated to correct the date of the City Council meeting where the budget vote will take place. The meeting is June 16, not June 18.
Laura Place covers city government for the Santa Maria Times.
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