Not every Monday evening at the city council chambers offers such a thick layer of metaphor and poetry, but May 24 was dense with it. The presentation of the budget by the Interim City Manager, Lamont Ewell, was punctuated by a quote from a Robert Frost poem.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
Along with this oft-quoted and much misunderstood poem was an in-depth and insightful commentary on the global economy, the euro crisis, China’s leveraged debt, General Motor’s profitable quarter, the $40 million that the state of California has lifted from our coffers, and what all this means to Culver City.
Take a deep breath.
Lamenting that the current budget (being presented for the fiscal year of 2010- 2011 ) “did not address the structural deficit,” it was clear that the focus was on just getting through. Ewell admitted that this was “not a sustainable long term-strategy,” but simply what could be done with the resources at hand in the current situation. With $158.6 million for the budget, he stated, “we believe this to be a prudent approach.”
It needs to be admitted that Culver City is simply too dependent on sales tax, and that sales taxes continues falling in all categories. One possibility that came up in discussion was the idea of raising the TOT, the transient occupancy tax that brings the city income from hotel bookings. While our TOT is currently at 12%, compared to the 14% charged by many other neighboring cities, it was undecided if raising the tax would bring in additional income, or just push business to the other cities.
This is a balanced budget, but only because of the accounting principles that have us scraping our savings and using our reserves to keep from going into the red.
Ewell noted the obvious, “Expenditure level must be lowered to match projected revenue…to weather through this challenging period.”
Scott Malsin questioned the wisdom of borrowing $2 million from the reserves to make up for revenue shortfall, as he felt it was not healthy to take the reserves below the standard of 30%. “Not because 30% is a magic number, “ he said, but that taking reserve down to the bottom was simply unwise.
Emphasizing his objection, he continued, “I don’t think it’s just about tax structures. I’d never advocate that we sell assets for a one-time revenue.”
Mehaul O’Leary noted “It’s critical that over the next two years we solve this structural deficit. This is the thing we need to address.”
Andy Weissman brought in the metaphor of “kicking the can” to describe that idea of pushing difficult problems forward to a later date. In regard to raising the TOT, Weissman said “ It’s long overdue, and we don’t have much in the way of responsible alternatives for an economic development strategy. It may be that we need to maintain a lower TOT to make up for the lack of amenities, but let’s make sure-we’re not cutting off out nose to spite our face.”
Following the general budget, both the police and fire departments gave complete and detailed reports on how they will make up for the budget shortfall, with the police saying that they will no longer keep an officer at the front desk 24 hours a day, something that seems to contradict their promise that pubic safety comes first. If you can’t go to the station and find an officer on duty, where can you go?
The fire department offered that they had saved the city money by hiring fire fighters who already had paramedic training, thereby obviating the need to spend more to bring them up to the required standard.
While most people listened to the brief bite of poetry and thought it an erudite way of punctuating bad news, it had an interesting subtext. Many of us know that quote, the tail end of a seventeen line poem, sounding as if one small choice has ”made all the difference.” But the title of the poem is “The Road Not Taken.” The difference between ‘less traveled’ and ‘not taken’ is a strong one, and what Frost says is that that the small choices we make really are the large ones.
“Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.”
So, as we borrow from reserves and cut staff and see what we can do to get through this difficulty, it will take some creative and brilliant leadership to get us out of the woods.
I only hope that our next city manager is as educated and articulate as Mr. Ewell, or the next budget may be accompanied by a quotation from “Macbeth.”