The Planning Report recently interviewed Culver City council member and former mayor, Thomas Small, about the fiscal and policy challenges brought on by COVID-19 in his city. He sheds light on the complexity of crafting a city budget which must also address understandable public demands to #DefundThePolice while prioritizing the health and safety of all Culver City residents.
“We have managed to respond to this crisis and cut our budget severely without having any layoffs so far…It has created an esprit de corps amongst our staff and city that’s just extraordinary.”—Thomas Small
TPR: During this year’s COVID-19 pandemic, The Planning Report has focused much of its coverage on how public & private sector leaders are navigating an unparalleled and a compounding set of crises, including a dramatic loss in revenues. Please share with our readers how Culver City is managing its budget challenges?
Thomas Small: First of all, we have reserves of about $90 million, which is about the same as what Santa Monica had, but obviously our budget is much smaller. So, we were in a somewhat better position than some of our neighbors and other jurisdictions around the state to be able to use our reserve to cushion the fall for a short time.
The approach that we came up with was really lead by our city manager, John Nachbar, who is an extremely experienced career city manager; it’s what he’s done for 40 years in various different cities around the West. He has been through and dealt with a number of recessions, but never anything as severe as what we’re in now. We determined early on that our approach would have to drastically reduce our budget over the coming years.
Secondly, we chose to do it by attrition rather than having a big chunk of layoffs right at the beginning. We have managed to respond to this crisis and cut our budget severely without having any layoffs so far, which is astounding to me and has created an esprit de corps amongst our staff and city that’s just extraordinary. People have been working so hard, I just cannot believe it.
TPR: Elaborate on how the City is managing through this crisis.
We’ve had more city council meetings more often than anything in my memory. Our last meeting lasted seven hours and ended at 2:17 am, and previous meetings were comparable to that. We approved the budget with upwards of 300 members of the public there to comment via the WebEx platform we’ve been using to hold city council meetings. The city manager asked his department heads for cuts across the board, so every department got the directive to cut as much as they could without laying off any staff. Many outside contracts and pretty much all of our capital programs have been cut.
The one thing that’s a little wonky has to do with our CalPERS debt and our pension plan. We had a program to try to pay down that debt sooner rather than later and thus saving money in the end. We were supposed to invest about $10 million this year to help us shave off the top of that debt, but that’s obviously been postponed. It hurts us in the long run, but it helps us right now.
TPR: With the challenge of having to address a pandemic, economic recession and civil unrest, does City leadership have time to reflect much on its policy decisions and on the impacts going forward?
TS: It’s challenging. But first, I’d like to clarify our strategy of attrition that I think is key. Rather than laying people off, when people retire or leave for whatever reason, we’re not going to be replacing them. Our budget will continue to shrink in that regard over the next two or three years. We may also institute incentives or golden handshakes for people to retire. When folks are at the top of their career, they have a higher salary, so this helps us free up those positions and to shrink our departments. That’s one of the more humane ways to go about having to cut the budget that we’re actively engaged in.
What I’ve not yet addressed are challenges faced by our police department—the epic saga that we’ve been through with regard to the budget since the horrendous murder of George Floyd, the protests, the looting, and our reaction to that. They’re all bound up in these same revenue issues.
On the day after the LAUSD school board voted not to dismantle its school police force, how is Culver City approaching the challenge of budgeting its police department?
There’s been such tremendous controversy over this issue in Culver City. We have a populace that has become more engaged than ever before. After the murder of George Floyd, we immediately had protests going on in the city with thousands of people peacefully protesting. At the same time, protests were going on all around the country, and the riots and looting also started.
We have been operating the city through our Emergency Operations Center since the beginning of the COVID crisis, which really changed the structure of how the city functions. Our police department had already been all-hands-on-deck, seven days a week for a while, so when the violence started, we were well positioned to respond to it. But there was a very dramatic set of events that happened over a week.
There was a protest at city hall that my colleague, Meghan Sahli-Wells, and I attended and spoke at. After I left with my son, the police chief spoke. He wanted to respond to accusations that our police officers were not turning on their body cameras while on mutual aid in Beverly Hills—which turned out to be false, mistaken information. He was booed off the stage. And then my colleague, Meghan Sahli-Wells—who’s a hugely popular progressive political figure—was also booed off the stage.
Over the weekend, on social media, Meghan tweeted in support of Black Lives Matter and challenging our police budgets, which provoked a reaction from the Police Officers’ Association. They wrote us an open letter challenging the city council and lamenting that we were not supporting them after all they had done for us.
For full coverage, go to https://www.planningreport.com/2020/07/13/part-1-thomas-small-culver-city-responds-defundthepolice