Council discusses economic footing

By BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

A hefty agenda resulted in a nearly five-hour-long meeting of the Ridgecrest City Council. While the bulk of the discussion was dedicated to the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority’s draft bylaws (see last week’s News Review), council and the public discussed the city’s economic footing.

City Manager Dennis Speer also announced his pending retirement.

Finance Director Tyrell Staheli gave a report on the midyear budget, ending in December 2016. While he described some trouble areas, specifically a decrease in revenue from the gas tax, he reported that revenues are trending upward and that things were looking good overall.

Despite the fact that holiday-season sales were not yet included, Staheli reported a “slight increase” in sales tax from previous years. But the city is still in recovery.

“We are still going to spend about $800,000 more than we bring in this year in one-time costs as well as some of the added litigation costs and negotiation costs we’ve had,” said Staheli. “We just have to make sure we keep our expenditures in check.”

During public comment, Stan Rajtora asked the staff to provide a year-end estimate during future presentations. Staheli’s presentation gave a detailed report as to how all of the different revenue streams were performing, but Rajtora said it would make it clear to the public “at a quick glance” if there was a yearend estimate.

“We can do that,” said Staheli – who said that staff prepares those estimates during the budget-formation process.

During a budget strategy presentation, Speer announced he would be retiring at the end of the year.

“I have presented the council with a succession and transition plan,” said Speer.

“There will be a new city manager, there most likely will be additional support staff brought in for that city manager. There will be a new public works director.”

According to Speer, the additional personnel could add as much as $750,000 in obligations to the city budget.

Since the city’s financial footing took a downturn nearly 10 years ago, the city has been continually understaffed, including multiple unfilled department head positions. Over the last several years, Speer has been serving as city manager and public works director with little support staff.

“We will have to consider staffing in critical and key areas,” he said. “That’s something that will be built into the budget that we’ll approach council with.”

Council also voted to revive a city economic development committee after letting it fall through the cracks over the years.

“It just kind of went away on its own,” said Councilmember Lindsey Stephens, after members of council couldn’t pinpoint when the committee actually stopped functioning.

Mayor Peggy Breeden and Vice Mayor Eddie Thomas both voiced concerns about potential conflicts with other economic-development groups, like the IWV Economic Development Committee, but Rajtora spoke up again, arguing that there would be no such thing as too much economic development.

“I assure you there is more than enough work to be done,” he said. “Everybody will have more than enough to do. The city cannot delegate its responsibility to economic development to someone else. It’s the city’s responsibility.”

Stephens and Concilmember Wallace Martin volunteered to sit on the committee with two members of the planning commission. The meetings would be open to the public.

Former Councilmember Lori Acton cautioned council that public meetings about economic development were not always beneficial and that negotiating with developers can be sensitive.

But Stephens stressed the importance of potential incoming developments being made known to the public.

The council meets next on Wednesday, March 15, 6 p.m., at City Hall.

For more information, visit www.ridgecrest-ca.gov/ridgecrest-city-council.

Story First Published: 2017-03-10