Budget delayed; citizens express concern about ongoing problems

Budget delayed; citizens express concern about ongoing problemsIn the absence of a budget summary and with documentation provided only in real time, a majority of the Ridgecrest City Council declined to approve the 2013-14 budget until further details could be acquired and examined.

While concerns about timely budget information were expressed from both sides of the dais, citizens also emphasized concerns about ongoing issues that appear to contribute to the city’s budget woes.

Lou Renner said that he keeps reading about high city salaries and wants to see the city clarify that issue.

Andy Anderson said that he is unhappy with the city’s decision to reduce general-fund support to public safety — identified by the city as the highest priority — by more than 20 percent, when parks and rec took a much smaller cut. “That is not fair and equitable. At the same time we’ve seen no support out of the general fund for streets for four years.”

“The News Review wrote a very informed editorial about the city’s financial problems which the city continues to ignore,” Former Mayor Curt Bryan said from the public microphone.

He said that those problems include an assumption of revenues that never materialize, inflated salaries, raiding of the wastewater fund and lack of follow-through on promises relating to Measure L.

“This is a short list of concerns. My list is a lot longer.” He said he is also concerned that the council remains unresponsive when those concerns are raised.

He said that before retiring from China Lake he managed a budget that was between $600 and $800 million. “I cannot believe how you guys cannot manage a budget that’s not even close to $15 million. It just bothers the heck out of me.”

His remarks were met with applause from the audience.

Mayor Dan Clark admonished the audience, telling them clapping was inappropriate.

A resident called for a point of order, but was not recognized by the mayor. When the citizen continued to call for a point of order, City Attorney Keith Lemieux advised him that if he continued to be disruptive he would be removed from the meeting.

Chris Nicholson asked how the city could justify paying a parks and recreation director more than $130,000 per year, given the state of local parks.

Michael Neel said the council has no authority to suppress the public’s right to applaud, which is protected under freedom of speech.

“Almost every meeting of the city council, someone says something about city salaries. I get the same look I’m getting right now — deer in the headlights. No one wants to talk about it. No one wants to do anything about it,” said Anderson.

“Unless you are hiding a personnel revision plan, we have exorbitant salaries, and we need to do something about it.”

When his remarks were followed by silence, he added, “This needs to be addressed, even if it’s to say, ‘Shut up, Andy!’”

Mayor Pro Tem Chip Holloway said the message has been heard. He said that because of contract obligations and union considerations, the problem does not have a simple solution.

Councilmember Lori Acton added that councilmembers are working behind the scenes on those issues, including closed-session discussions that the council is not at liberty to share with the public.

City Attorney Keith Lemieux piped up that the council was not discussing salary issues in closed session, since that would be illegal.

Tom Wiknich said the council was not honoring its promise to the public to use Measure L to augment police and street funding when it reduced general-fund support to police, backfilling 12 positions with Measure L and eliminated funding for two open positions.

At the same time, departments like parks and recreation saw no reductions, he said.

Jerry Taylor pointed out that parks and rec salaries have even seen an increase — a luxury not afforded to the thousands of DOD employees who were currently seeing their earnings reduced by up to 20 percent through furloughs.

He said that city employees also make much more money when compared to what their counterparts at China Lake.

Jim Fallgatter criticized the lack of documentation for how the sewer fee increases would be spent (see related story, this page).

Other complaints about lack of documentation included a failure to define what services would be reduced or eliminated. He said that the public had no way of knowing details such as what parks would continue to be maintained, whether street sweeping services would be offered, etc.

Finance Director Rachelle McQuiston, who was hired only a few months ago, said that the limited time prevented more detail being published in a more timely manner.

“I’m not sure what we’re expected to do tonight,” said Councilman Jim Sanders. “I got several new pieces of information tonight. I’m not comfortable with the budget, and I’m not comfortable taking action tonight.”

He said he is specifically opposed to the staff decision to funnel new savings identified into the parks and recreation budget.

Vice Mayor Jason Patin said the council needs to start building the budget as though Measure L does not exist. Based on heavy dependency on Measure L and warnings of an increase in crime, the city needs to offer more general fund support to public safety, not less.

Mayor Clark asked what adjustment to the proposed budget would compel Patin to vote yes that night.

“You have to start over,” said Patin.

Clark said that the council could always pass the budget now and make midyear adjustments. “If our transient occupancy tax revenue drops like we anticipate, we’ll be back talking about this again anyway.”

He said the budget needs to be passed soon to accommodate both the July 1 beginning of the fiscal year and vacation schedules for himself, other councilmembers and city staffers.

“If we can get a 5-0 vote tonight I’m happy as a lark.”

Sanders said the increase in funding being passed along to parks and rec over public safety was a deal-breaker for him.

Patin also pointed out that numerous private companies and volunteers have continued to offer services to offset city costs — particularly in parks and recreation — and that the budget does not incorporate those resources. “Instead we continue to raise fees on our users … I don’t believe in that philosophy.”

The council did not officially vote on a change of direction, but will discuss the budget again when it comes up for the June 19 vote.

Story First Published: 2013-06-12