Council faces tough budget choices tonight

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

After hearing comprehensive reports from department heads during last week’s budget hearings, the Ridgecrest City Council is expected at tonight’s meeting to give staff direction that will shape the budget for fiscal year 2013-14.

The reports included a staff commitment to balance the current $1.3-million budget shortfall without continuing to use one-time money for long-term obligations. But diminishing revenues mean that the city will be unable to maintain its current level of service. (See also related stories, this issue.)

While a list of city functions placed investment into public safety and infrastructure as the top priorities, the consensus of the council is that reductions to the lower priorities, including parks and recreation and economic development, could spur setbacks — both known and unknown — such as a reduced ability to generate revenue and a negative impact on recruitment and retention in the local workforce.

Even the additional revenue from Measure L — which the council has pledged to spend on police and streets, as promised to voters — is expected to be highly contested, with both departments looking to procure the lion’s share of the special tax. Measure L is projected to bring in approximately $1.8 million next year. Public Works is requesting $1.6 million for roads, and the PD is requesting $1.3 million.

Police Chief Ron Strand cites a countywide spike in crime, as well as an absorption of responsibilities previously provided by higher levels of government — and no additional funding to carry out those duties. Measure L paid for 10 officers in this year’s budget. Strand is asking for coverage for 14 officers and one records clerk next year.

City Manager Dennis Speer, who also heads the Public Works Department, cites the exponentially increased cost of rebuilding roads if they are not repaired before they reach a failed state. He added that by diverting dollars to road projects, the city also opened up a far greater resource to leverage in county, state and federal matching funds.

Finance Director Rachelle McQuiston also announced that the proposed budget does not provide for a reserve. “As much as I tried to get a $500,000 reserve, it would have just decimated some of the services.”

Residents in particular expressed concern over that point. “Unless you can show that everything you’ve projected is conservative, that seems to be just asking for trouble,” said Stan Rajtora.

Although council did not give direction to build in a reserve, members did ask staff for additional detail on many points. Some also pointed out that they had insufficient time to come to a responsible decision when much of the information was presented only that night.

Among the general pushes from the council was a request of staff to look for ways to save costs by investing in automated functions — such as one proposal from the Information Systems Department to offer automated registration and payment services for recreational activities.

For the last several budget cycles, the city has been behind the curve with funding from upper levels of government disappearing midyear (such as the $2-million-plus loss annually with the dissolution of redevelopment agencies), as well as underperforming revenues that are not addressed until months later.

In order to prevent the latter from remaining an issue, McQuiston, with the support of Speer, is proposing a monthly budget review that will evaluate revenues in real time “and help us avoid surprises.”

Vice Mayor Chip Holloway expressed surprise that the staff plan for making up $1.3 million in the budget could be achieved with a citywide staff reduction of only one full-time equivalent. McQuiston said that the numbers that support the plan will be available in more detail tonight.

The council encouraged members of the public to attend tonight’s meeting, scheduled for 6 p.m. in City Council Chambers, and voice their opinions and concerns in the process. Proceedings will be broadcast live on Mediacom channels 6 and 41, as well as streamed on www.justintv.com (search term Ridgecrest).

Story First Published: 2013-05-01