Finance director: no need for panic mode

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

In presenting her preliminary report to the Ridgecrest City Council, new Finance Director Rachelle McQuiston said that as she works to compile data for the city she believes the fiscal picture is not as dismal as some believe.

Last fall Interim City Manager Dennis Speer outlined a new $1.3-million structural deficit in the city, attributing it in part to obligations inadvertently left out of the budget and to underperforming revenues.

In February the auditor painted a much grimmer picture, noting that in the last budget cycle the city had spent about $3 million more that it took in, that it had no reserve fund and that the general fund still owed $4.5 million to the wastewater fund.

“I’ve looked at the report and asked what the auditor was talking about,” said McQuiston, who stepped into her role about three weeks ago. “I’m not getting strong evidence from what I see at this point that tells me we should be in panic mode.

“What I think he’s saying is that you’re spending more than you’re bringing in. As long as you’re cutting what you’re spending and increasing your revenue, you’re fine.”

She said she agrees the city needs to take a proactive approach to solving the problem, but the city needs to wait for accurate information before making decisions.

“I know everyone is impatient for numbers. I am trying to get them as quickly as possible.” She said that revenue is made up of many complicated streams and now she has only pieces of the puzzle with no picture.

“I get comments that we’re going bankrupt, we’re not that bad, we’re OK — I’ve heard so many things. Give me enough time to compile the right data and I am happy to show you that picture and how I come to my conclusions.”

She said that if community members want to do something to help their city, they should buy locally.

“I keep hearing a lot of stuff about the city council is not transparent. From what I’ve seen, that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Mayor Pro Tem Jason Patin said he is amazed at what McQuiston has accomplished in such a short time.

“As it is now, it does not look like the tax revenue is decreasing,” said McQuiston. She said she wants to provide the city with options for different scenarios. “I am very heavy on setting ourselves up so that we can adjust if we are getting more or less than we expect.”

“We have very little debt,” said Vice Mayor Chip Holloway. “I think it’s important to illustrate the way we do our budget. We never borrow to maintain services. It’s a disservice to the community to banter about terms like bankruptcy.”

“From what I see, it is highly unlikely that bankruptcy would be an option,” said McQuiston.

“I am working really hard to get projections. It’s really overwhelming. Everyone wants everything right now. But it’s dangerous to pull things out of the air. Wait for good numbers to make good decisions.”

Mayor Dan Clark asked if the city can balance its budget so that it doesn’t continue to deal with the threat of mid-year cuts. She said as an accountant she does not like surprises, and she will plan to avoid those.

However, she noted, “At this point I wouldn’t count on a reserve.”

Story First Published: 2013-03-13