Former councilmen urge budget solution

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

In light of the auditor’s recent confirmation of a serious budget crisis in Ridgecrest — and the fact that very little public action has been taken to address it — three former city councilmen addressed the current members of the council at last week’s meeting to urge swift action.

“I have neglected my opportunity to address the council for a long time. It has been my fault, but I have aged considerably and now feel like I can’t do this. But I’m going to do it one more time,” said Curt Bryan, who served on the council, including as mayor, in the 1990s.

“I am very disappointed the council has seen fit to strip $4.5 million from the wastewater fund and put it in some other funds,” he said, referring to a former city manager’s action to use that fund to cover administrative overhead. When that action was challenged by the Howard Javis Taxpayers’ Association, the city agreed to repay the money.

When the auditor addressed the city at the previous meeting, he noted that with that deficit to the wastewater fund, the city is operating on a negative-37-percent reserve. Other figures he presented also cite a $3-million structural deficit in the city’s $12 million budget. And with continually reduced Navy travel, many say the city’s revenue projections will continue to fall short.

“The council should have seen this coming and made the necessary compensations,” said Bryan.

“Other cities in California are experiencing bankruptcy. We could be heading in that direction. Hopefully that is just an old comptroller like me talking. I wish the new council luck.”

Tom Wiknich, whose most recent term on the council ended in 2010, said that in assessing whether programs such as parks and recreation pay for themselves, the city has been failing to take into account indirect costs. He said that when he looks at his own business, he looks not only at the salaries and benefits of his employees, but also at other overhead to determine whether he is making a profit.

He also urged the council to consider the way the budget is presented to them. Several residents have complained over the last several months that the way account costs are distributed across account codes make it difficult to track revenues and expenditures at City Hall.

“I bring this up well in advance so that you can tell the city manager how you want this information presented to you,” said Wiknich.

“The common theme here is the budget. It is pretty hard to escape when you look at the numbers,” said Jerry Taylor, who served on the council until last November.

He said that it has been 63 days since the council last took action to correct the current structural deficit in the budget — despite increasingly staggering reports of an imbalance.

Taylor said among the most troubling reports is a $583,000 deficit in the gas-tax fund. “If you cancel the only street project you have, you are still in the hole. That is even assuming you put in the budgeted $236,000 from Measure L.”

Other residents have also noted that despite passing Measure L to increase the budget for street repairs and public safety, it currently appears that none of that money will end up in streets. When the current deficit was revealed, police salaries were backfilled by Measure L. Taylor is among those who have pointed out that the council should have instead spread cuts across all departments in order to preserve Measure L to be spent according to promises to the public.

“You have got to start cutting. Sequestration is going to happen, and that will be another impact to your revenue stream. You should also cease all city travel. Even the Navy is only doing mission-critical travel. The Navy didn’t put a second carrier in the Middle East — that is how bad it is. And they are looking at only a 12-percent cut. You are looking at something even more severe.”

He added that council comment period was a time not just for delivering public-service announcements, but also for outlining direction to staff about how to proceed in the current fiscal crisis.

“We are looking to all of you to help lead us through this.”

Paul Vanderwerf also commented on the recent friction between City Hall and the members of the Measure L Citizens Oversight Committee, who were criticized for overstepping the scope of their duties in their in-depth analysis of the city spending. “The problem really has to do with the transparency of the financial data,” he said.

“There was a lot of testosterone coming out over this issue, but the real solution is getting transparency in the information. Then these issues will go away.”

Although Mayor Dan Clark has not yet addressed public criticism of his chastisement of the committee, City Attorney Keith Lemieux said that he addressed the concern with the committee and that he was in “substantial agreement” with committee members over their interpretation of their duties. “I don’t expect this is going to be an issue going forward.”

Several members of the council requested an immediate scheduling of budget workshops in order to get started on giving direction to staff regarding the impending cuts.

Interim City Manager Dennis Speer said that the council needed to wait until department heads came forward with reports before they could be evaluated and refined by the council.

Councilwoman Lori Acton added that Speer had been functioning in his current role for only six months, and the new finance director had been in place for only a few days, so the public needs to be patient with the city in moving forward with solutions.

“Good things are happening, but the public doesn’t always see it,” she said. “If you want to talk, we’re here.”

She added that the city could keep cutting, but if it did not find a way to increase revenue “we are eventually going to cut ourselves out of existence.”

Councilman Jim Sanders, among those requesting a workshop, said as a China Lake employee, a 20-percent amounted to loss of his entire discretionary spending.

“To the community, we are faced with the biggest budget crisis I think I’ve ever experienced in my years of council, and now serving as the mayor here,” said Clark. He said that he was concerned about how badly the projections showed the revenues were underperforming.

“If it is going to be worse than expected … add us to your prayers. I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

Story First Published: 2013-02-27