Latest budget docs raise questions

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

The city’s latest budget proposal, which the Ridgecrest City Council is expected to vote on tonight, raises additional questions in a process that has been criticized by the public as lacking transparency and failing to deal with long-term structural deficits.

(See additional information on tonight’s agenda in the related story below.)

Chief among those red flags are apparent adjustments between the June 5 and June 19 proposals that demonstrate a departure from the consensus built by the council during budget discussions that identified public safety as the city’s main priority. Although the change in budget format has been praised by city officials, the most recent iteration contains seeming inconsistencies between an accompanying letter to council members and some of the backup documentation.

That letter notes that the Parks and Recreation Department is being reduced by two positions — with one being transferred to the streets division and one vacant position going unfilled. By the full-time equivalent chart shows that this year’s 18.01 FTEs are the same as last year’s 18.01.

Additionally, the allocation for parks and rec salaries is up to $717,000 — well above both last year’s $649,000 and an earlier proposal’s $689,000.

This particular data point has been repeatedly called into question by members of the public who note that despite fewer parks to maintain, the condition of athletic fields and facilities under the city’s care has rendered many of those resources unusable. Parks and Rec Director Jim Ponek has blamed the degrading quality on budget cuts.

But critics point out that the maintenance force has seen no significant reduction and that the city continues to invest in bureaucracy rather than in service to the public.

Another inclusion in the budget that appears to be at odds with previous discussions is Ponek’s plan to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to convert Freedom Park into an athletic field.

The city gave direction to staff to explore ending the city’s lease with Kern County to maintain and operate recreation programs at LeRoy Jackson Youth Sports Complex. A group of volunteers stepped forward with a plan to maintain the fields and operate programs at a greatly reduced cost to the city.

With that in mind, members of the public questioned why the city would reinvest money to create a new field if staff is already unable to maintain the facilities currently under its control.

While parks and rec appears to see a boost in its allocation for employee wages, the Police Department has been reduced from the $2.9 million from the general fund allotted in the June 5 document to $2.5 million in the June 19 document. Both include a supplemental $650,000 from Measure L.

The FTE document shows that the police force is up three positions, though one of those positions appears to be unfunded and two are volunteers from the reserves.

The grand total for FTEs for the city is 129.26, up from 126.16 last year.

In light of a $1.3 million deficit in last year’s budget, it is unclear what services have been cut to account for that loss.

Finance Director Rachelle McQuiston told the News Review that the city had Measure L to balance the city’s budget. But residents have pointed out that with no measurable increases in general fund support to police and streets — and even a loss by some calculations — the city has not honored its pledge to the public to use the tax passed last year to augment public safety and street improvements.

Story First Published: 2013-06-19