Public concerns remain; council fires back at critics

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

The final chapter in the months-long discussions at City Hall regarding priorities and transparency in the current budget process concluded with members of the public reiterating their concerns about the city’s long-term fiscal health and some members of the Ridgecrest City Council defending themselves to their critics.

(See also related story above.)

Longtime council watcher David Matthews said that he was glad to see so many new voices participating in the process. He said that it was encouraging to see renewed engagement from the public.

“Some of us have been around awhile, talking about these things, seeing that the discussions were getting de-energized.”

On the heels of the hotly contested tripling of the wastewater fees paid by property owners — which was approved at the previous council meeting — Christina Witt presented her intent to challenge the city on a legal basis, and asked the public to support the effort by contributing to the Ridgecrest Citizens Legal Defense Fund.

Paul Vander Werf outlined his concern that the city does not have the internal controls in place to prevent future budgetary oversights — several of which have already been discovered. He asked the council to ask annual auditors to expand the scope of their examinations to identify additional weaknesses.

“I am seeing a pattern with the way the city is managing our money,” said Vander Werff. “We don’t just want you to spend it, we want you to be accountable for it.

“I made a Freedom of Infor-mation Act request a month ago and still have not heard back from city officials. We need to put in our due diligence to be informed, but you need to respond by getting back to us with information.”

He also said that the city has less than a 1-percent reserve, which allows it to operate only for a few days in the case of a financial emergency.

Former Councilmember Tom Wiknich said that he was concerned about the discussion at the last city council that council members and staff had to work around vacation schedules to get the budget passed.

“One of the single most important things you do is pass a budget by July 1.” He said that being available for that process should be made a higher priority by the city.

He also suggested that county residents, who do not pay taxes for city services comparable to those paid by city residents, should be charged an adjusted rate for using city facilities and services.

Former Councilman Jerry Taylor said he appreciates the city’s efforts to make the budget more readable, but is concerned how the lack of a breakdown in some line items prevented the public — and even the city — from knowing what level of service the current budget would be buying the public.

Through his questions to the council regarding the spike in city employee salaries over last year, city officials acknowledged that employees were now off furloughs and no longer paying their contribution toward retirement.

Stan Rajtora expressed concern that the elimination of internal service charges, which the city made to make the budget more readable, kept the city from making departments support appropriate levels of funding for internal services. He cited as an example wastewater paying the same share for IT, despite not benefiting from that service.

Phil Salvatore pointed out inconsistencies within the budget documentation, which Finance Director Rachelle McQuiston said were unintentional oversights. But he also questioned the apparent trend in protecting parks and recreation from cuts while levying disproportionate reductions on police and streets. “I don’t understand the priorities going on here.”

Bill Campbell said he is concerned about doing away with any park facilities. “We live in a desert. The only grass some people see is at our parks. Why are we talking about doing away with all this? To me that’s crazy.”

Former Councilman Steven Morgan, who came before the council to discuss his involvement in the community’s Fourth of July celebration, said that he greatly appreciates the effort on the part of city officials. “I will not stay for the accusation fest.”

Mayor Pro Tem Chip Holloway’s remarks seemed to also address public criticism, including those raised by Former Mayor Curt Bryan regarding the city’s inability to manage a $10-million budget, and questions raised in last week’s News Review outlining of unexplained budgetary shift.

“A lot of people say, ‘I manage a $100-million budget so how come you can’t manage a $10-million budget?’ Well I’ll tell you, it’s a lot harder to manage a $10-million budget.”

He said that he did not mean any criticism of other agencies in the valley, but by his analysis the city has the smallest budget and the most responsibility. He said the city also bears a higher level of scrutiny.

“I guarantee you we have fewer dollars to provide a much larger service. People need to take a step back and do an honest analysis.”

He also criticized newspaper articles publishing salary and wage information “when they are clearly aware that there was a union negotiation we lost.” (Since nothing was reported publicly by the city, that disclosure was the first this reporter had heard that the city had completed negotiations, or what the results were.)

“There was nothing we could do about it, and they knew it. [The newspaper] said that as a gimmick.”

Addressing other public suggestions, Holloway said that other ideas brought up by the public have been looked at.

“Just because we’re passing this budget and those ideas are not incorporated for a myriad of reasons … it takes a multitude of small steps. But I absolutely see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Vice Mayor Jason Patin said he resents former councilmembers who criticize the city council. “I can promise you that I would never do that.”

“I know it doesn’t look like it, but there are major, drastic changes in this budget that people won’t see right away,” said Holloway.

He said that the city will not make the same mistakes as Sacramento, which continues to overspend. “I hope even our harshest critics will get on board and continue to work with us.”

Story First Published: 2013-06-26