Fix the budget? Or kill the messenger?

The Ridgecrest City Council has not passed a balanced budget in years.

With city General Fund reserves dipping below zero (over 4 million below zero if you factor in the “borrowing” from the Wastewater Fund), the time is right for city leaders to address this problem quickly and decisively, before Ridgecrest becomes yet another bankrupt municipality on the California scene.

At the last council meeting some local citizens (several from the city's Measure L Committee) took the time to voice their concerns about the city's fiscal health, urge responsible budgeting and protect Measure L money so that it is available for road maintenance and a well-staffed police force.

Bafflingly enough, the response from the council as a whole was not a tone of determination to end the city's march toward bankruptcy. Instead, the council members (especially the mayor) made it clear that they are sorely displeased – NOT with the city's poor fiscal health but with the citizens that dared criticize them.

Instead of proposing a fix for the city's $1 million structural deficit, the mayor responded by suggesting that the council not only replace the members of the Measure L Committee but also define rules for how members of the public are allowed to address the council.

While the council did approve a small amount of budget cuts in the meeting, this reduction represents only a small percentage of the city's structural deficit. Furthermore, with the exception of Jim Sanders, all council members shied away from considering more significant immediate cuts – claiming that such large and abrupt reductions would be unfair. Meanwhile, as the council balks on making system-wide cuts, the city continues bleeding financially – overspending at a rate of nearly $4 per minute.

Thus, the city's budget woes continue. In spite of the large turnover on the council this last election cycle, it looks like the trend of deficit spending is likely to continue.

Surviving a reduction in revenues is hard. The council has pointed out (and perhaps rightly so) that the city's deficit has been greatly exacerbated by a grabby state government that has failed to live within its means. But if that is truly the case, the council has the opportunity to demonstrate the discipline that our state government lacks and produce a balanced budget rather than punt the problem and the cost to future generations.

The city is again at a crossroads. This council can either focus on the arduous but necessary task of streamlining city government or it can focus on silencing its critics.

Story First Published: 2013-01-02