Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Big Budget, Billboard Heartbreak

Tonight, there was a discussion of Santa Clarita's $191.5M budget for fiscal year 2014-15, the retirement of Jim Ventress of the Boys & Girls Club, and adjustments to city fees[1]. But what got Councilmember Bob Kellar really worked up was the successful signature-gathering effort for the billboard referendum. Kellar was simply heartbroken over the 11,370 voters who chose to sign petitions opposing construction of three large new digital billboards along SCV freeways. Happily, however, Kellar likes to keep meetings short, so even with his dramatic monologue, the meeting didn't run too long this evening.

And now, a word from your public...

The invocation was offered by Mayor Laurene Weste. As this was an early June meeting, she read from Eisenhower's message to the troops before D-Day. Several would remark appreciatively about her choice over the course of the evening.

Awards and recognitions offered a change to bid farewell to Jim Ventress, Chief Professional Officer for the Boys & Girls Club. He was almost at a loss for words as he reflected on his three decades with the organization, thanking all those who had helped to support its mission. On his way out, Mayor Weste said he told her, "You'll think of things to put me to work," so he'll remain just as active in the community for the foreseeable future, it seems.

Public Participation followed. Steve Petzold spoke about the recently certified singatures for the billboard referendum. This will affect the deal to install large electronic billboards along the freeway in exchange for removing conventional billboards within Santa Clarita. Petzold anticipated and preemptively countered the assertion that petition-signers were not fully informed on the issue. He asked that the council listen to the will of the people. Two speakers addressed the topic of challenges facing mobile home residents, specifically concerns over appeals of board decisions and about tree-trimming and other general property obligations. Finally, both Al Ferdman and Cam Noltemeyer spoke to advocate writing protest letters in response to the proposed sanitation tax increase ("scam", in the words of Noltemeyer) to help Santa Clarita comply with water quality chloride standards.

City Manager Ken Striplin responsed to the concerns from mobile home park residents by reasserting that the City tries to balance to needs of residents as well as park owners; he said an ordinance updating some policies and practices will be coming before the council in the fall. On the matter of the billboard ordinance, he said that the referendum would affect only the billboard agreement, not land zoning and other changes that had been included in the item. Councilmember TimBen Boydston asked for additional clarification on billboards, specifically confirmation that 22 conventional billboards would still be coming down despite the successful signature gathering (these will be removed as part of another agreement). Striplin confirmed, so if voters do weigh in on the billboard deal at an upcoming election, it's a 40 conventional down for 3 digital up swap, not the 62/3 swap it was initially. Of course, voters would see and be voting on the original deal, which complicates things a bit.

In the midst of the billboard discussion, Councilmember Bob Kellar got rather emotional. "There's a variety of opinions...some people may choose to celebrate, I think this is a sad day for us," he said. His voice conveying equal parts sadness and outrage, he said he felt as if paid petition gatherers had "infiltrated" Santa Clarita and gotten their signatures by not telling the public the whole story (i.e., that conventional billboards would be coming down in exchange for putting up the electronic ones). He lamented the fact that Santa Clarita wouldn't get it's (small) cut of the advertising revenue from these boards. Essentially, the 18,000 signatures collected--well over 11,000 of them verified--meant little to Kellar. His reasoning was circular: if people had known what they were signing, they wouldn't have signed it, so the fact that they signed it means they didn't know enough about the billboard swap deal. It seems conversations with some pals who liked the deal and good ol' intuition trump thousands of signatures. He went so far as to say that he'd be asking Scott Wilk about ways to make sure petition gatherers present all the facts before collecting signatures--some kind of signage, I think, was his proposal. In any case, updates and comments from the other councilmembers were boring by comparison.

Ferdman on Consent

The Consent Calendar wasn't too contentious--I gauge that by the number of public speakers, and tonight it was just Alan Ferdman. He spoke on items relating to water use/supply, the re-hiring of landscape contractors who don't do a good job of maintaining medians, and the levy of assessments for special districts. He tied everything together, somewhat, by suggesting that the City is too scattered and inconsistent in its efforts to equitable manage water issues, landscaping, and taxation.

Joe Montes had to guide the City Council through voting on Item 11, which was the levy of assessments for special districts, by having separate votes to prevent councilmembers from voting on those assessments which affect them directly. Within a matter of minutes, the entirety of consent was passed with the recommended actions. As that wrapped up, Councilmember Marsha McLean mentioned increasing the hotel/tourism marketing district tax by 0.25% as a potential way to fund the arts in Santa Clarita. Mayor Weste said it would be better to wait for the arts master plan to weigh in on this, but McLean wanted to get the ball rolling.

A Budget for Everyone
After a bathroom break, a few public hearings were held. First up was discussion of the proposed FY 2014-15 budget, just shy of two-hundred million dollars. Kellar asked that the presentation on this be kept short. City Manager Ken Striplin halfway obliged Kellar, but he couldn't resist running down the list of exciting(?) items included in the budget. With general fund revenues back to pre-recession levels, there was enough to support many project, improvements, and events. For example, there will be $135K to continue fighting CEMEX mining, a little over $750K will be going to the senior center, there will be more funding for the arts, a tennis center at Central Park and upgrades to other local parks, and $80K for holiday decorations in Newhall again.

Not everyone was happy with the budget. Cam Noltemeyer wondered about debt obligations, perceived fiscal irresponsibility, and a lack of transparency. Striplin responded by saying that all of the City's financial information--including debt-related items--is available for citizens to review, but somehow, I don't think Noltemeyer found this answer satisfactory.

The next public hearing was on adjustments to various fees. Though citizens in Santa Clarita appear to be largely misinformed, Kellar asked that the presentation on theses adjustments and ammendments be waived. Maybe people are just misinformed on the billboard issue. As for fee adjustments, some went up, and a few went down, which Councilmember Boydston found remarkable. He said one wouldn't see that at the state level without removing a governor, a suggestion that Councilmember Kellar happily seconded. (At this, Mayor Weste laughed and forbade a roll call on the motion to remove the governor, suggesting it might be beyond the council's jurisdiction.) The changes were approved. The final public hearing on allowing Albert Einstein Academy to operate a school on Rye Canyon Road would be moved to a July meeting as more time had been requested, so with that, the meeting ended.

[1]I have no agenda, but the City of Santa Clarita does.