Tennis coach Vladmir King uses his racket to trace a long, wide crack that branches out across the center of a tennis court at Herb Martinez Park. Next to him, a net that was once clipped securely in place bends into an arc with every gust of wind. The entire court is cracked and peeling, with chunks of green surface material scattered along the fence.
The city has a total of 22 public tennis courts, but a website for local tennis enthusiasts only lists three locations with courts in “playable condition.” Herb Martinez does not make the list.
For the last 14 years King has coached tennis with First Serve, a nonprofit that offers academic tutoring and intensive tennis training in after school and summer programs. During that time, he says, he’s watched many of the city’s courts deteriorate due to lack of maintenance. King says the competition for the few quality public courts has greatly intensified during the pandemic as more people spent their leisure time outside and courts at some private clubs and schools shut down.
“Finding a decent place to play—it’s been tough, especially for the general public,” says King.
Visitation to Santa Fe’s parks increased substantially in 2020 thanks to COVID-19 restrictions on all indoor fun, said acting Parks Division Director Melissa McDonald at a budget hearing for the Public Works Department last week. To keep up, the department has proposed $1 million in the budget for the next fiscal year to upgrade playground equipment, install porta potties, keep weeds at bay and resurface the city’s most damaged tennis courts.
King has spent years advocating for these upgrades.
“It would be wonderful...” says King. “It shows that the city is interested in the youth of their town.”
These investments are possible because Santa Fe’s economy is recovering from the pandemic more swiftly than initially expected, said Finance Director Mary McCoy at the outset of last week’s budget hearings.
The city will have more money for community programs, public spaces and pandemic response in the 2022 fiscal year, which starts on July 1. Officials also plan to unfreeze many positions they’ve kept vacant during the pandemic and give all employees a raise of between 3% and 4%.
The budget hearings, which began on April 13 and continued Tuesday, give each city department the chance to present its spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year to the Finance Committee for review and approval. The process also gives city councilors and the mayor the opportunity to ask questions before they vote on the budget in its entirety at a City Council meeting on April 28. The city’s Finance Committee has so far approved most departments’ spending plans without requesting changes.
Overall, the proposed budget for next year reflects a much rosier economic outlook than anyone could have imagined last spring, when the city predicted a jaw-dropping $100 million deficit for the 2021 fiscal year.
Still, a full recovery will take some time. The city expects revenues from gross receipts taxes, property and lodgers-taxes, fees and services to come in $23 million short of what the city collected in 2019.
In many ways, the city’s proposed budget aims to counteract the stratifying effect of the pandemic in which the rich have gotten richer and the poor have become poorer.
For example, while on average the city spent $1.5 million on affordable housing a year between 2018 and 2020, it proposes to spend around $7.5 million on affordable housing in 2022, including a $3 million allocation for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. The city will also hire an additional full-time employee to help manage the fund.
“A few years ago I was fighting tooth and nail for every single scrap I could get out of the budget and I think this year is really demonstrating how important affordable housing is for our community,” said Affordable Housing Director Alexandra Ladd at the budget hearing on April 14. The city proposed $75,000 to set up an eviction hotline in response to a predicted crisis of people getting kicked out of their homes once local, state, and national eviction moratoriums end.
Land Use, another department that has been chronically underfunded since the last recession, has also requested a significant influx in cash next year. The proposed investments would help the department manage tensions between the need for more affordable housing and sky-high real estate and land prices, or between maintaining the cultural aesthetic of the city and increasing density and sustainability through infill projects.
Department head Eli Isaacson proposed to hire five new full-time employees to improve the department’s ability to respond to community questions as well as increase efficiency of inspections and permitting.
Most importantly, the department plans to spend $200,000 to conduct a growth management study and $150,000 to comprehensively update the city’s land use codes.
“[The growth management plan] is really about trying to make sure that as we grow, as we provide the housing that we all recognize that this community needs, that we are not fundamentally changing the character of Santa Fe,” said Isaacson.
Finance Director Mary McCoy said the city plans to hire several new staff positions in the finance department to manage the millions it expects to receive in pandemic aid from the federal government.
The budget also includes allocations for more transportation services aimed at seniors, and Spanish speaking residents will finally be able to find all city materials in Spanish if the proposal to put $75,000 towards translation services is approved.
Today, the committee heard proposals from the city clerk, attorney and manager. The hearings continue tomorrow with the police, fire and recreation departments where city staff will propose funding for a second “alternative response unit” that would combine the forces of the police, emergency responses with the fire department, and social workers to respond to 911 calls that have to do with behavioral health issues. The mayor and chiefs rolled out the program and the first unit on Monday.
The Police Department also plans to restore 13 frozen positions in the police department and hire 15 new Wildland firefighters in response to a projected high-risk fire season.