City tackles budget challenges

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

City tackles budget challengesAn intensive all-day budget workshop on Monday saw the Ridgecrest City Council and upper management, with participation from the public, tackle some of the fiscal challenges facing the city.

Interim City Manager Dennis Speer led by presenting a comprehensive overview of the considerations of this year’s budget cycle — which include continuing recovery from state raids in 2012 and preceding years as well as a downward trend in the local revenues that feed city coffers.

Speer said that the purpose was to discuss the process, delineate parameters, identify priorities, establish a development plan and discuss strategies. He also discussed ways that staff was streamlining the format and presentation in order to make information more accessible to the public and council.

Goals include prioritizing and preserving core operations and services, leveraging partnerships, bringing expenditures in line with revenues and restoring reserves — while minimizing the impact to the citizens and staff.

Other existing challenges in-clude a lack of emergency reserves, negative fund balances and substantial debt service loads, increased post-employment benefit liability and overall uncertainty.

Speer laid out a plan to make up the projected minimum $1.3-million structural deficit by having each department take a cut proportionate to the level it is supported out of the general fund. Each department head then gave presentations to the council. (See below for council and public comment.)

` “I just want to emphasize one thing you said — that managing this now will avoid fiscal crisis in the future,” said Councilman Jim Sanders. “We’re doing the right thing by taking care of this right away.”

Mayor Pro Tem Jason Patin said he was also glad to see an end to using one-time monies for long-term expenses.

Several councilmembers also pointed out that the cuts would be painful, and that some would even consider cuts unfair, but that everyone will have to give up something.

“This is not going to be pleasant. People are going to be upset. Perhaps if everyone is upset, we’ve done our job,” said Mayor Dan Clark.

Barbara Auld tearfully thanked the city from the public microphone for the information, and pleaded with the city to disseminate that information throughout the city. “The public, the whole valley, really needs to have this information. That’s what we’ve been pushing for for years.”

Andy Anderson asked if the council was going to reduce salaries. “Maybe you can save someone on the bottom end by paying your top people less. I know it’s tough, and I don’t envy your position at all, but everyone is going to have to feel some pain in this budget cut.”

Paul Vanderwerf said that the difference between a sense of urgency and a sense of emergency is that urgency is felt from the first quarter, not just in the last one. He also noted that the heat from the public was not a tantrum. “What you are really sensing is frustration from the community. And the solution for that is to fix the problem.”

Nadine Steichen said she is looking forward to hearing from the department heads, since she believes the way to deal with the current crisis is to listen to those who have the expertise.

Howard Auld said that unless the city sees revenue projections, it would not be able to establish a baseline for expenditures. He also cautioned the city to explore community partnerships for services such as parks maintenance.

He also said that if the council wants to get input from the public, they needed to keep their presentation simple.

Tom Wiknich said that if the council wanted to get a broader understanding of public sentiment, it should run polls.

Mike Neel agreed with Speers’ statement that the city needs to act responsibly in the current economic climate.

He compared current city salaries to those on base with similar budgetary and supervisory responsibilities and noted that the city salaries are much higher. “Why are the department heads at China Lake making less? We need to see fairness across the board if you don’t want to see people getting upset.”

Jack Noyer encouraged the city to bring community leaders together to address the issues facing the valley.

Police

(56 percent of General Fund)

Police Chief Ron Strand told the council that decades ago the FBI conducted a study to establish targets for officer-to-citizen ratios on community police forces. On the East Coast, that number runs from 2.5-3 per 1,000. On the West Coast, 1-1.5 per 1,000. Strand said the variability has to do with economic status and population density.

Strand said that his current force of 31 has a 1.1-to-1,000 ratio. “My minimum number has to do with delivering service in the most effective way while still keeping overtime costs down.” He said that the current staff can respond to 9-1-1 calls, enforce traffic, investigate serious crimes and be proactive on keeping pressure on known criminal elements.

When Measure L was passed, he said, he hoped to hire two more officers to put the department at what he called an optimum staff level. But he said he could manage at the current number.

Strand noted that programs like Teen Court help deter juvenile crime, and the department’s proactive stance against crime has helped keep gang elements from establishing a foothold in the community.

When asked whether the city would save money by contracting law enforcement to the county, Strand noted that the city already has the ability to control level of service (which would be effectively lowered through that action) by reducing the police force.

The police department has already seen cuts in general-fund support, but most of those have been backfilled by Measure L revenue.

Parks and Recreation

(14 percent of general fund)

Parks and Recreation Director Jim Ponek told the council that his staff has been putting out fires and putting on Band-aids, but the city needs to establish a long-term vision. He said that over the years his staff has been reduced, but that in some cases the savings from layoffs and the losses of revenue through cut programs balance out.

“That last statement just lights me up,” said Vice Mayor Chip Holloway. He said that if that was the case, the community lost a service and an employee lost a job with no positive impact to the general fund. “That cut made no sense. We’ve got to examine this differently.”

Patin said that Ponek needs to look at how revenues could be increased to offset facility costs, instead of cutting revenue-generating programs without reducing obligatory maintenance fees.

Holloway said that when Ponek comes back to the council, he needs to present options that offered ways to offset fixed costs. If those options don’t pan out, the city would need to look at leasing out facilities to community groups to run programs. “We probably would not need [Ponek] in that model, but that’s a model that we need to present to the public.”

Sanders questioned Ponek’s plan to request parkland from the county, when the city cannot currently maintain the parks it already owns. Ponek did not directly answer the question, but inferred that maintenance staffmembers would have more time to give to the parks if they did not have to take care of Pinney Pool.

Sanders, along with several members of the public, asked if volunteers could help maintain parks and run programs.

Ponek said that volunteers pose a liability to the city, could not predictably be relied upon and still had to be supervised.

Patin pointed out that the Police and Community Together volunteers log thousands of hours each year to help the police department. “So what’s the difference?”

“I don’t know why we have not been more successful. I’d love for it to work. It just doesn’t,” said Ponek.

Other members of the public urged the council to explore options for maintaining parks at a reduced cost.

Neel also noted that the parks and rec director on base makes about $50,000 a year less than the city director does, and that was one cut that could be made. Police and parks and rec absorb most of the city’s money, he said. “If you don’t cut from there, where are you going to cut from?”

Other government services

Sharing some 30 percent of the remaining general fund were public works, economic development, planning, information technology, finance, administration and other municipal functions. While the council also heard from them (most notably the finance director; see related story), none outlined specific plans for reduction.

However, Jim McRea, who previously served as community services director for the city and is now a consultant, noted that potential savings from some of those departments must be accomplished by reducing salaries. “You can’t reduce staffing. Zero is not dividable by any number.”

McRea also addressed the city’s current deficit, which he attributed to the significant loss of funds when the state eliminated redevelopment agencies. That not only dried up a significant revenue stream, he said, but froze the city’s ability to sell properties that were tied to RDA, thus preventing the local government from leveraging assets that had been anticipated to pad last year’s budget.

One more notable suggestion came from Holloway, who asked staff to look into closing one of the city’s two fire stations and converting it into an emergency service station. The city currently contracts Kern County to provide fire-protection service. That cost to the city, as well as what could potentially be saved, were not available at press time.

“I am pleased with this,” said Sanders. “I know it took a lot longer than planned, but it exceeded even my expectations, which were substantial. I appreciate staff bringing us this information. It will help move us forward on finding a good financial footing.”

Story First Published: 2013-03-13