Simi City Council Has Marathon Budget Session

By Kevin Harris

The Simi Valley City Council unveiled the bulk of its 2018-19 City Budget; Chose its Community Project Grant Recipients; Paved the way for a new, large apartment complex; and voted to put cannabis on the November ballot during Monday’s all night City Council meeting — the Council’s last regular meeting before the Summer break. 

The Public, Police, and Council: Head-to-Head on the Budget

Early on during the meeting, during Items 2A & B (Public Statements and Council Comments), numerous public speakers, many on the public dole in one form or another, took to the podium to explain why their position, department or service was important enough to remain intact and not be cut from the new, tightening city budget. This even included Simi’s Police Chief, David Livingstone, who’s police department could possibly lose its Planning Department, among other personnel, beginning in April, 2019. This public speakers session went on for about an hour. 

Some speakers apparently blamed City Manager Eric Levitt for parts of the new budget that displeased them, and after the last speaker sat down, Mayor Pro Tem Glen T Becerra responded to those individuals. “What I disagree with is the implication that the City Manager is driving this. The City Manager works directly for the City Council. If there is a direction being given that is smoke and mirrors, that’s coming from us. We’re ultimately responsible, not the city manager,” Becerra said. 

The Mayor Pro Tem also discussed the Simi Police Department, and how, even with so many officers compared to similar-sized cities, local crime rates have gone up, according to official statistics. “We used to be the number one safest city in America. Now we’re 33rd safest in the State of California,” Becerra said. 

Police Chief Livingstone, already upset by the possibility of budget cuts to his department, came to the podium to debate the crime statistics with Becerra, and pointed out that the stats were mostly provided by homeowners associations and local chambers of commerce, as opposed to being official FBI crime stats. He also pointed out that his department is playing it so tight financially that he “can’t even afford to put body cameras on my police officers.” Livingstone would be asked by the Council to discuss his department further later in the meeting. 

Simi Police Chief David Livingstone

Simi Valley 2018-19 Budget

Later during the meeting came Item 8C; The review and approval of Simi’s 2018-19 Budget, 5-Year Capital Improvement Program and Approval of the 2018-19 Transit Budget. The presentation was given by staff member Jody Kerschberg, who also introduced Simi Valley’s new Budget Officer, Carolyn Johnson. 

The proposed budget, which includes the General Fund; Capital Projects; and Enterprise Funds (Transit, Sanitation & Water), is expected to show revenues of around $70 million, with about $72 million in expenses, while the city operates at a $1.5 million  deficit and accrues a $1.6 million CDA loan repayment. Simi Valley is expected to show an operating surplus of about $56,000.       

The General Fund — the primary part of the budget, sees 85% of its costs go to city personnel payments, with major revenue sources being property taxes and sales taxes, and to a smaller degree, franchise taxes, business taxes and transient occupancy taxes. 

Some key recommendations for the proposed General Fund include the following:

  • Elimination of 16 positions
  • 4-days furlough (closing City Hall between Christmas and New Years, to discuss w’ Unions)
  • Phase-in fee increases based on FY2014-15 fee study.
  • Re-evaluate budget mid-year, may recommend further reductions.

The proposed 2018-19 Budget has investment in infrastructure and technology, including sewer line and building upgrades and street resurfacing, among others, but expenditures continue to outpace revenues. Many service fees fall far short of the city’s cost to provide them, while pension costs are increasing and unpredictable. 

After the staff’s presentation, the Council responded with comments, which, for a good while, was dominated by Glen Becerra, talking about loosely-related side issues. This, after an already 5+ hour city council meeting! Becerra finally called Police Chief Livingstone back to the podium, where the Council reiterated its question from earlier in the evening: Will crime analysis and crime prevention activities still take place, despite any cuts to those departments at the Simi PD? 

Chief Livingstone told the Council and audience, which was both patient and sizable, that Community Outreach programs are not going away. “Whether that gets done by police volunteers, or gets done by a volunteer coordinator, those are different ways that we can approach doing it,” he said. 

He warned that Crime Analysis is a whole different ballgame, however, and that they’re really understaffed for that. “The functions are going to continue. It’s not going to be the way it has been, but it’s been gradually changing over time anyway,” he pointed out. 

Becerra then began a long line of questioning to the police chief about the Police Reserve Program, and when that finally concluded, the council members talked openly, but among themselves, about documents only viewable by them. (At least it wasn’t behind closed doors. Thank you, Brown Act?). 

After the Council voted unanimously to approve the budget as proposed by staff, most of the audience left, after having endured more than five hours of meeting. 

Community Projects Grant 2018-19

Item 8D on Monday night was the upcoming Community Projects Grants Funds. The City Council unanimously authorized the City Manager to approve $150,000 awarded to 12 (out of 22 submittals) non-profit organizations that requested funds. Below are the organizations and the amounts awarded. 

Change Land from “Community Park” to “Very High Density Residential”

Long before Simi’s budget proposal was considered by the Council, they debated on whether to give final approval of a land designation change to a 13-acre parcel on the valley floor, which would pave the way for a 311-unit, 3-story apartment complex to be built. The complex, at 1692 Sycamore Drive, is to be owned and operated by USA Properties, and will also offer 98 senior “affordable housing” units. 

The senior affordable housing units in the complex will be 1 bedroom at about 570 square feet, and the building will have elevators, laundry facilities, a community room and a gym. Onsite parking will be available for the complex as well. The affordable housing agreement (AHA-R-059) is a joint venture between Area Housing Authority of Ventura County and USA Properties, and includes an agreement for Simi Valley to provide a city loan of $3.5 million once permits and AHA are approved. 

There were several speakers from the audience waiting to voice their support or concerns over the project. One had concerns about the large, onsite parking lot’s close proximity to the low income units, namely the auto exhaust, noise and bright lights from the lot. 

Tracy Johnson, who has lived next to the site for more than 25 years, had serious traffic concerns for the area, and asked the Council to “please consider the residents.” 

Julie Busey, a 15-year resident, said she enjoyed the amenities at the park n rec that was previously at the site, and is also concerned about traffic, and parking with 1200 new residents. “Are there going to be traffic lights? Are there going to be crosswalks? It’s not fair to the residents that live there, and that have lived there, to put that burden on them,” she said. 

Jay Espetel said he was upset that the city is giving public park land to a commercial entity. He suggested that Westlake Village never would have agreed to this project, and said he strongly opposes it. 

The “applicant” (developer) was given a chance to rebut the speakers’ concerns, and though he was well prepared, he might have appeared somewhat arrogant with his answers — perhaps because of his preparedness. 

On the topic of parking and traffic, he said that the developer and community have “mutual interests” in assuring ample parking exists, because they will be charging ample rents for the market rate units. He went on to say that, according to census data, “84% of renters in Simi Valley own two or fewer vehicles. The concern that there will be three or four cars per unit is unsubstantiated.” He also said that his own studies showed traffic lights were not needed. 

When it was time for the Council to ask their questions, Glen Becerra started by asking how much the rental units would cost. The general rental units will run about $1950 for a 1-bedroom, up to about $2350 for a 3-bedroom apartment. The Council asked if the applicant would agree to pay for a traffic light to ease neighbors’ concerns, but the applicant would not commit to it, considering his studies indicated no such need existed. After some back-and-forth, the Council added an amendment requiring a bond from the developer, to potentially pay for a traffic signal, should the need for one arise with two years after project completion. The developer had no problem with that stipulation. 

Council Member Mike Judge, who is also a Simi Valley Police Officer, asked the applicant to provide 24-hour onsite security and video surveillance, in part due to the police department’s budget restrictions, but also because of his experience with apartment complexes in general, which, according to him, account for more crime on average than areas with single family homes. 

Council Member and Police Officer Mike Judge

The applicant turned down that request, but said cameras are a part of every one of his facilities and they can make those tapes available to police at any time. The Council then discussed that matter at length, and in the end decided not to require the 24-hour security for the project at this time, with one reason being, such security is a police responsibility. 

Council Member Dee Dee Cavanough said she supports the project, and spoke to at least some of the public’s concerns about it. “With this proposal going through, the Park District will have the funds to finish all the existing parks in town, including Rancho Madera and Rancho Santa Susana,” she said. 

Mayor Bob Huber also spoke in support of the proposed complex. “One of the things I like about this is we’re going to have 99 senior affordable units here… We’re required to do this by law now, and this would be a good, balanced way to do it,” he said. 

VOTE: The Council approved the motion with a majority vote, with only Council Member Mike Judge voting against. 

Add an “Advisory Vote” on Cannabis Issues to November Ballot?

Also during the meeting was a discussion about whether to add an “advisory vote” to the November 6, 2018 ballot regarding possible locations around Simi Valley to allow cannabis businesses to set up shop. Currently, there are no areas zoned for cannabis businesses in Simi, as such businesses remain illegal, locally. 

After a staff person raced through a prepared presentation that was largely unintelligible, the Council discussed the issue. An “advisory vote” is limited in that it is non-binding, and does not change current laws. Once again, the Council’s discussion was based largely on materials not viewable to the public, capped off my a unanimous vote on motions not seen by the public. This is your mind on cannabis.        

The next regular Simi Valley City Council Meeting will be on Monday, July 30, 2018, at 6:30 P.M. Both the meetings on video, and the meeting agendas, can be directly accessed by going to the following URL: http://www.simivalley.org/i-want-to-/view-watch-/city-council-meetings.

 

Kevin Harris

Kevin Harris is a reporter, editor and journalist, previous President of Cal State Northridge’s Society of Professional Journalists having worked for the LA Times and Newhall Signal. He is now also a Realtor and videographer, and lives with his two children in Thousand Oaks. 


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