Council outlines budget solution

Staff expected to return with draft next week; vote scheduled for June 5

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Council outlines budget solutionAfter more than a 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, the Ridgecrest City Council on Monday evening outlined direction to staff for constructing an executable budget.

Although the details were not available at press time, projections show that original 20-percent cuts across each department were revised somewhat so that police lost slightly more while parks and recreation lost about 10 percent.

Measure L will soften the reductions to police and streets, with $1 million going to the former and $800,000 to the latter. But residents note that the special tax that was promoted to augment those services is just barely keeping them at the same level of funding.

City officials attribute that in part to a $1.3-million budget shortfall discovered last fall (which follows on the heels of several million more in revenue losses over the last several fiscal cycles). With that in mind, councilmembers and staff 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 parks and recreation.

While public safety was identified as the highest priority, many objected to over-reliance on Measure L to maintain the police force. Measure L Oversight Committee Member Scott Garver is among the public participants at the meeting who pointed out that by funding 12 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.

The audience at Wednesday’s meeting was packed with 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 parkland 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. 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 use 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.”

During the follow-up meeting on Monday, Finance Director Rachelle McQuiston said that the city was able to find $103,000 in cuts to other departments, and that the savings would be passed on to Ponek so he did not need to make so many reductions.

Councilmen Jim Sanders and Jason Patin both expressed concern about that, since police was both the top priority and the target of the biggest reduction in terms of general fund support.

“My intent in dividing up Measure L was that any money we got back would be put to making police whole. But now we’re talking about giving it back to Parks and Rec — I’m already starting off with a big problem with this,” said Sanders.

Mayor Dan Clark ignored the comment and asked Ponek to present his plan. During his presentation he did not mark programs or facilities for cuts, but rather reiterated the possibilities and asked the council to choose.

During the discussion councilmen again questioned the logic behind Ponek’s reasoning, noting that he was asking for more maintenance staff while marking multiple facilities for closure, and asking for another employee to run programs while saying that he would reduce the number of programs run by the city. (Some of those programs will now be run by volunteers.)

Robert Look, one of the coaches for youth sports, said that he felt Ponek was more concerned about saving the jobs of his employees than about continuing to provide services to youth. “We’ve robbed our kids of pretty much every place to play sports around here,” he said in referenced to the browned-out and neglected facilities around town.

Michael Neel said that he was concerned that the council still was not looking at reducing department-head salaries. “You could save $150,000 a year by cutting the parks and recreation director and transferring his responsibilities.”

Paul Vander Werff said that instead of working with the community volunteers, Ponek has blacklisted participants who have disagreed with him. He said he would like to see all of those volunteers brought back in and everyone — parks and recreation director included — held to the same code of ethics.

Justin O’Neil said that he has seen residents come forward to save programs. “It does not seem like those methods have been thoroughly explored to see how far-reaching they can be.

“Get everyone together to discuss this, see who can absorb what. I see costs up here that I think people are willing to take on.”

Teri Bayer said that a group of volunteers will be meeting Thursday at 6 p.m. in the Kerr McGee Center to discuss just that. “We are not interested in micromanaging, we just want to get a group together that can track what people are doing and communicate that to the Parks and Recreation Department. It’s not about control, it’s about maintaining our programs so that we can use them.”

The News Review is awaiting a budget summary to delineate cuts to each department. The cuts made to Parks and Recreation last night include a release of LeRoy Jackson Park back to the county (which is expected to allow a local group of volunteers to continue programs), transfer of the Kerr McGee Youth Sports Complex to the athletics associations, transfer of Hellmers Park (behind the Senior Center) to a local club to create a community garden, a reduction in the water used to irrigate medians and a combined $17,000 increase in fees to youth football and youth baseball.

Story First Published: 2013-05-08