Harlan: Annual budget needs longer-term perspective

This week the Costa Mesa City Council approved the city's $132.6-million budget for the next fiscal year. Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer hailed the effort, using phrases like "a positive budget," "getting things done" and "rightsizing."

But before we get too excited about the council fulfilling an important duty, let's take a closer look at how one of the council's major priorities shaped the final budget.

The council initially asked city staff to revise a preliminary, balanced budget because it wanted to fund more capital improvements this year. Of course, accommodating the wish list of projects required cutting the budget elsewhere (we'll get to that in a moment).

This year's capital improvement budget is almost $21 million, representing 15% of the total budget. It sounds impressive, especially because the city has funded a lot less over the past few years during the economic recession. If we pull back the curtain, though, we'll find that what the Costa Mesa taxpayers are really funding is a lot less remarkable, and may cost us more in the long run.

The biggest capital expenditure, $8.26 million, will go toward street and alley improvements. The fact is the city has almost $7.55 million from special funds — gas taxes, Measure M (local transportation bond) funds and community development block grant funds — that must be used for these types of projects within a three-year period. In other words, we are obligated to undertake these projects or we simply lose the funding.

All told, the city's general fund — monies coming primarily from our sales, property and other taxes that make up our operating budget — will be tapped for only $840,000 to improve streets and alleys. Specifically, this money will fund three projects: Westside streetscape improvements, a portion of citywide unimproved alleys and a one-block strip of 19th Street.

And while improving our infrastructure is presumably of vital importance to this council, maintaining it apparently is not. In order to patch the budget deficit to pay for more street improvements, the council eliminated the staff that literally patches our streets.

In a curious move, the council abolished the city's in-house residential street paving program, which completely rehabilitates 10 to 15 residential streets a year. By reducing three maintenance worker positions and the need to buy materials, we now save about $555,000 (or $5 per Costa Mesa resident).

Why would we spend more than $8 million to improve new streets and alleys, but do away with the maintenance staff to support them in the future?

Wasn't it this council that professed it is more efficient and effective to undertake regular, preventive maintenance (e.g., rehabilitate streets) than to comprehensively rebuild infrastructure? The next time this council kicks the proverbial can down the road, it will likely end up in a pothole.

When the focus is on near-term results, like undertaking big capital improvement programs, and not on thinking systemically for the long-term, the budget is merely parochial and shortsighted. This is a disservice to the community.

What we really need is a long-term community vision, which, among other things, would help guide the council in the budget process. Each annual, balanced budget would advance us toward that achieving that vision. It would also ensure that we have the unseen resources — seasoned staff, money and institutional knowledge — to support and maintain the tangible assets we value.

Moreover, if we decide to rebuild a street or construct a park facility or acquire property (a motel, for example), we must have plans in place to maintain these assets. In all instances, these plans require people to rebuild a curb, stripe a ball field, manage a grant program or process a development application. Building and developing without considering our future service obligations is unsustainable.

After all, local government is, at its core, a service industry. Public service, that is.

So while this budget appears to be balanced on paper, it does not necessarily translate into enduring value for our community. Hopefully next year we'll see a budget that does.

JEFFREY HARLAN is an urban planner who lives on the Eastside of Costa Mesa.

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