Council amends budget, meeting schedule

Revising its meeting schedule, hearing an update on grants and approving amendments to the 2012-13 budget were among the items of business before the Ridgecrest City Council at last Wednesday’s regular meeting. But the recent loss of two key members of staff in a dismal budget climate continued to spark concern from the public.

“This has been a very depressing meeting,” former councilman Howard Auld said from the public microphone. “Where is the recovery plan?”

Some members of the council said that the fiscal challenges were created by repeated state raids on local coffers, and that the council was simply making the best of an unavoidable situation.

“I do not consider this to be a negative meeting,” said Mayor Ron Carter. “We are thinking outside of the box, trying to think of ways to generate revenue. We are actually a lot better off than a lot of other cities in California.”

A longer-than-normal closed session with legal counsel delayed the start of the meeting by about 45 minutes. Attorney Keith Lemieux apologized for the delay, but said the time was “not frivolously spent.” He briefed the council on litigation between the city and an undisclosed party, gave a lengthy report on the city’s lawsuit with Benz Sanitation and discussed labor negotiations.

“There are no reportable actions at this time,” he said.

The council approved a resolution on the formula it uses to pay retired police employees. The new rate goes from paying 2 percent for each year served with a retirement eligibility age of 50, to paying 3 percent per year starting at 55.

Planning Commission James Sanders asked what the cost difference would be to the city. According to Vice Mayor Jerry Taylor, the police will begin paying part of the employee share of retirement contributions to make up the delta.

In order to accommodate a scheduling conflict of an undisclosed nature for Councilman Jason Patin, the council also voted to cancel several regular meetings and hold special meetings so that Patin could attend.

Laws governing public transparency and accessibility dictate that most governing bodies, including the council, approve regular schedules at the beginning of the year. The council maintains the power to cancel standing meetings and schedule special meetings, but Lemieux noted that there are several limitations on special meeting — including the prohibition of hearing “as-need-arises” items, such as the council heard in that evening’s closed session, or approving ordinances.

Councilman Taylor said that since the council would still have a quorum (three or more) councilmembers available, and in order to avoid disenfranchising the public, the council should maintain its regular schedule.

Councilman Steven Morgan said that he at least would be out of town for the second meeting in October and that a special meeting date should be created for that meeting.

After some discussion, Mayor Ron Carter recommended keeping the regularly scheduled meeting on Oct. 3 to conduct business without restrictions, and move the two dates after that. The council approved canceling Oct. 17 and Nov. 7 meetings and scheduling special meetings on Oct. 18 and Nov. 8.

Juan Garza of California Consulting gave the council an update on the first 10 months of the firm’s performance as the grant-writing contractor. According to his report, the city has already been awarded a $250,000 grant. Two other grants valued at $178,545 are pending.

He said that is balanced against his firm’s annual fee of $30,000.

Garza said that there were many other partnership opportunities for additional grants, including some that would develop park and recreation facilities.

Mayor Pro Tem Chip Holloway said that he would like to see the city partner with some of the youth sports leagues to pursue those grants. He added that the main limitation to the city applying for more grants was the lack of staff time.

With the recent loss of City Manager Kurt Wilson and Finance Director Tyrell Staheli, acting finance director Tess Sloan presented several adjustments to the council’s fiscal budget — most of which increased the amounts of expenditures.

From the public microphone, resident Stan Rajtora expressed concern about the city’s trend of continuing to borrow from different ISF accounts to maintain solvency.

“You can’t have an overspent condition every year,” he said.

Holloway said that the city has been reacting to revenues lost to the state. “People try to spin this as mismanagement of funds — which is ridiculous.”

Phil Salvatore, a financial analyst and one of the members of the Measure L Oversight Committee, which has been charged with ensuring that the recent tax is spent on police and streets as promised, said that he has been researching the last 10 years of city budgets to get a better handle on city spending.

He challenged the council’s claims that of navigating an unprecedented fiscal challenge.

“This is not a low year,” he said. “The story out there is that our revenues are getting slaughtered — but that is not really the case.”

The News Review asked Salvatore to share his results of the analysis. He said he would as soon as he presented it to the Measure L committee.

“I’m so disgusted with the negative people who continue to pour on myself and these four gentlemen, ‘Everything is a scam, everything is an abomination.’ It’s sickening to me,” said Morgan.

“When you’re told that’s not the way it is and you continue to spew the same garbage, you’re not a part of the solution.”

Story First Published: 2012-09-26