Santa Maria's proposed budget will keep library, pool closed for months to come

The Santa Maria City Council will vote to approve the city’s proposed 2020-22 biennial budget on June 19, which seeks to address COVID-19 related deficits. So far, the city has lost $3.8 million because of the pandemic, and it could be facing more than $10 million in revenue losses over the next two years, according to City Manager Jason Stilwell.

The city is taking a couple of different approaches to mitigate such losses, one of which is digging into city reserves. The city will use remaining money—$7.3 million—in a smaller reserve fund as well as dip into a larger fund that’s never been used. 

“Technically the council would be borrowing from the reserves because they have a policy to pay it back in three years,” Stilwell told the Sun. “We’re fortunate to have the reserve, and it’s the right time to use it.”

Stillwell explained that there’s only so many budget cuts the city can make on such short notice, since many programs and projects are already contracted out. That being said, there are a couple of places where the city will extend closures to save money: the Paul Nelson Aquatic Center and the Santa Maria Public Library. 

“It’s not something that we’re looking to drag out for years and years,” Recreation Services Manager Dennis Smitherman said of the pool closure, which is slated to last until January 2021. “It’s only to get us through this finite amount of time.”

Smitherman emphasized that the city is working hard with its community partners, such as the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District, Allan Hancock College, and the Santa Maria Valley YMCA, “to make sure we still have some aquatics programming this summer.”

The Santa Maria Public Library, according to the proposed budget, would remain closed to the public until Oct. 1 to help offset the deficit. Currently, the library isn’t allowed to open anyway, according to restrictions set by both the state and the county public health officer. 

But Library Director Mary Housel said that may change sooner than initially expected. 

“At the time that the budget was drafted, we were still in Stage 1,” she said, referring to the state’s reopening guidelines. “It was thought, ‘Well, we’re already closed.’ But I think we will get to Stage 3 before [Oct. 1].”

This means that, if the budget passes, the library may be forced to stay closed for budgetary reasons, even once it is legally allowed to open under Stage 3 of the reopening guidelines.

Stilwell explained that “the budget strategy was to focus on when we can reopen legally through the health officer and the state, but also when we would have the funding available to reopen.”

Another obstacle the library faces is operating its branches in Guadalupe, Los Alamos, Orcutt, and Cuyama. These locations are mostly funded by a contract with the county, so, on paper, these branches shouldn’t be largely affected by the main location’s continued closure. But Housel said this may not be the case in practice. 

“The main library is kind of the mothership that guides the operations of the branches, so without the support here it makes it really tough for us to do anything at the branches,” she said. “Guadalupe, Los Alamos, and Cuyama only have one staff person on duty at a time—it’s stuff like that which makes us have to think twice about if we have the capacity under that Stage 3 [to reopen the branches].”

Stilwell said he is hopeful that the county contract can continue to support operations at the branches, perhaps even while Santa Maria’s library remains closed. However, he also recognized the challenges of operating the branches without the main location open. 

“There’s no cut in their county funding,” he said. “But it is an integrated system, that’s how we find the efficiency to be able to run the branches. If the county’s contracting with us to pay for them, we’re going to do what we can to fulfill the contract.” 

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