Council tables budget direction

Special meeting scheduled for 5 p.m. on Monday

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Adjournment of the regular meeting, and continued budget discussion, of the Ridgecrest City Council at 11 p.m. Wednesday night capped an intensive week of staff presentations, impassioned pleas by a public concerned about loss of services and lengthy council discussions over how to prioritize diminishing city funds with the lowest possible impact to the public.

But even after long hours of public debate, council members indicated Wednesday that they awaited further insight before giving direction to staff that would yield an executable budget, which council hopes to pass by early June.

With a $1.3 million budget shortfall to close this year (on the heels of several million more in revenue losses over the last several fiscal cycles), city officials have been frank in their warnings to the community that it will be impossible to balance the budget without having some impact to services.

The finer points of that discussion hinge on how much to cut in three main areas of interest — public safety, streets and infrastructure, and park and recreation.

While public safety is generally regarded the highest priority, many object to over-reliance on Measure L (the special tax passed to augment streets-repair and public-safety funding) to maintain the police force. Measure L Oversight Committee Member Scott Garver is among the public participants of the meeting who pointed out that by funding 14 officers out of the special tax, and only 19 through the general fund, the city does not have a long-term, sustainable plan for funding public safety if voters do not renew the tax.

On the other side of that coin are those who have expressed concern that while Measure L has been used almost exclusively on police so far in order to cover the most recently discovered budget shortfall, roads are rapidly failing throughout the city. Former councilmember Jerry Taylor noted that without an aggressive plan to repair roads, more than 90 percent will fail within three years. Once a street has crossed that threshold, it becomes 10 times more expensive to fix.

But the audience at Wednesday’s meeting was packed by those concerned about parks and recreation — which, lacking the Measure L support of police and streets, is the department most vulnerable to reductions in service.

At the beginning of the meeting, scores of football players of both school and league associations filed in and quietly sat through the business proceedings of the council meeting until their opportunity to address the public microphone arose. Coaches and players pled for city support to maintain facilities and programs — particularly the one at Kerr McGee athletic complex.

Parks and Recreation Director Jim Ponek was called to task for reducing revenue-generating programs, consistently relying on faulty projections and turning away volunteers who have offered to fill in the voids left by reductions in some areas.

He was further questioned Wednesday about his request for more park land given his department’s inability to maintain current facilities — which some have pointed out were kept in good repair with similar staff levels in previous years.

Community members came forward with creative solutions to maintain recreation programs in the community. Kern County officials lauded a program outlined by local volunteers that would incorporate business sponsorship of teams, use of DART services to maintain fields and residents to run programs.

Others have pointed out that by adhering to salary schedules that are much higher than comparable jobs on base, the city is investing in the bureaucracy rather than the children who benefit by having access to fields and programs.

“The theme I am hearing is control,” said Taylor. “When people wanted to fix infields or build concession stands they were not allowed to. The athletic associations have been wanting to volunteer for a long time, and have not been allowed to. That needs to change. Maybe the city could pay for utilities if they provide the labor. But you need to do a cost trade so that they can take ownership without being so financially burdened.”

The council is expected to make final direction at its special meeting on Monday, May 6, at 4 p.m. in City Council Chambers. The public is encouraged to participate.

Story First Published: 2013-05-03