From Renters Write, October 2009

Santa Monica is handling financial crisis better than the state

Mister Budget's Wild Ride

Times are tough all over—globally, nationally, statewide, and locally—but Santa Monica is doing better than most places, for good reason, namely a great community with a good and responsive government. Much of the credit for this goes to SMRR, and as we go though the various constituencies and see how they are faring during this stressful economic time, we will note with appreciation how many things are made better, or at least, not as bad, because of the job SMRR has done.

Santa Monica

Thirty years ago, the anti-rent control naysayers predicted SMRR would run the City of Santa Monica into the ground. Quite the contrary: Santa Monica has thrived through those thirty years, becoming a more desirable place to live than ever before. Even now, despite an uncertain global economy, we in Santa Monica enjoy relative stability and prosperity, due in very large part to the visionary yet prudent fiscal management of SMRR leaders over the years. Other cities may be struggling, but Santa Monica has managed to maintain crucial services to seniors, youth, and the disadvantaged. Santa Monica Councilmember and former SMRR steering committee member Kevin McKeown points out that “we’ve managed to keep our key departments properly staffed and funded, so that tenant protections and resident services are there when most needed.” The City continues to help support our schools with direct and indirect funding, and to provide stable ongoing grants to our social service agencies.

Statewide

Our Assemblywoman, Julia Brownley, a longtime SMRR friend, is trying to reform the archaic way school funding is done here in California, where we have gone from #1 in per-pupil funding thirty years ago, to our present position as 48th. State Senator Fran Pavley, also a long-time friend, is trying to find a way out of the legislative morass created by the 2/3 majority required for taxes, as well as term limits, which together have created a perfect storm of legislative ineffectuality. It simply doesn’t work anymore, and right now all initiatives, including her efforts on water and global warming, take second place to creating a workable budget to get through the next few years.

Metro

On the positive side, due to the passage of Prop R, Metro Board and City Council member Pam O’Connor reports that the Expo line, going through Culver City to Bergamont Station, Santa Monica College and 4th Street at the Promenade is on track for its expected completion in 2014. It will, I believe, be a game changer for the City, the College, and the entire region. And it was, it should be noted, something thought about and acted upon 20 years ago by some of SMRR’s original founders, who helped preserve the Exposition trolley-car right-of-way, the use of which is saving Expo approximately $500 million. They saw the future then, helping us to build it now.

Public Schools

Harry Keily, head of SMMCTA, the public school teachers’ union, and a long-time SMRR friend, reports that a difficult negotiation is underway for their next contract. “Voters in SM have always supported our schools,” he notes, “An investment in our schools is an investment in protecting our quality of life Santa Monica.”

In spite of dramatic cuts from Sacramento, Santa Monica’s schools continue to show impressive gains. Support from the City Council and the voters of Santa Monica have kept our schools among the best in the state.

Our wonderfully diverse schools consistently outpace Los Angeles County and statewide schools by wide margins. This comes as a result of the high caliber and hard work of our classroom teachers and our on-going efforts to improve instructional practice.

The vast majority of our school district’s funding comes from the state. Unfortunately, Sacramento is stepping back from its responsibility to properly fund California’s public education system. The cuts to K-12 education are more than anything we’ve seen before—cuts of $6.1 billion in the current fiscal year and $11.6 billion last February, with more cuts to come. Here in Santa Monica, we are determined not to have to make the kind of decisions that could permanently damage the quality of life of our city’s residents.

With the continued help of our community, our schools will continue to be vibrant places for students of all backgrounds to learn, thrive, and grow. Our schools are also always looking for interested community members to get more involved, such as joining the Personnel Commission and the District Advisory Committees. For more details, please visit www.smmusd.org.

Santa Monica College

Santa Monica College seems to be weathering the storm fairly well, reports Trustee David Finkel, thanks in good part to solid leadership of the all-SMRR supported Board, good people doing an excellent job during difficult times. SMC had created a significant reserve in anticipation of State cuts, allowing it to avoid major cutbacks during the fall and spring semesters, with minor ones this summer and planned for this winter.

So far the College is riding out this economic storm, and continues to maintain its excellent programs of student and community services.

The Arts

It is a painful truism that during difficult times it is always the weakest who are hurt the most, and artists, always on the fringe of society, are no exception during this recession. Bruria Finkel, long-time SMRR advocate for the arts finds that most are not selling their work; Government support for the arts has not trickled down, though the National Endowment for the Arts had started to dispense monies to organizations that have a track record in the community to allow them to maintain staff.

While some cities seem to consider arts programs dispensable when dollars run short, Santa Monica continues to make the arts a real community priority, building on the “Creative Capital” plan adopted a couple of years ago. We have added new cultural staff and programs, at a time when state and federal support for the arts has all but disappeared. Long-time favorites like the Twilight Dance Series on the Pier have been joined by exciting new events such as the summer “Jazz on the Lawn” concerts at City Hall. Making good on the SMRR platform section that calls the arts “a vital part of our community,” Santa Monica has maintained all ongoing grants for local artists and arts organizations, even adding new grant programs for young and emerging artists.

A Note Of Cautious Optimism

All in all, there’s a lot of pain to be felt, but it could be worse. A lot of people are losing income, and vital services like our schools are being stressed. But Santa Monica has ridden out slumps in the past, and will, most certainly, make it through this one relatively intact. The culture of this community, instilled in it for thirty years by SMRR and others, will not be destroyed or defeated. It will be tough, but we will make it through. We always have.

Martin M. Goldstein raised three children in Santa Monica, and currently teaches Communications at Santa Monica College. He is working on a book on the history of SMRR. He can be reached at goldstein_martin@smc.edu