Measure V funds questioned during budget hearings

Council hears proposed budgets from major departments for FY 2017-18

Measure V funds questioned during budget hearingsBy BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

The Ridgecrest City Council and staff have spent some 10 hours in public hearings since last week discussing the proposed 2017-18 budget – one they hope to have approved during tonight's regular council meeting.

Council and the public received detailed reports from the Parks and Recreation, Public Works, Planning and Economic Development departments, but the area that received the most attention was the police budget and expenditure of Measure V funds.

Since 2014, annual funding to the Ridgecrest Police Department through Measure V (previously Measure L) has increased from $1.3 million to $2.1 million. However, the department is receiving a smaller percentage of its budget from the city’s general fund.

Member of the public Stan Rajtora pointed out that by increasing the department’s reliance on Measure V the city is just freeing up more general fund money, not actually spending more on police. Measure L and V funds were approved by voters with the understanding that the money would be used exclusively for public safety and street improvement and maintenance.

“My feeling is we need to take a hard look at why the general fund is going up and have a simple explanation for the public,” said Rajtora. “By cutting from the police budget and subsidizing with Measure [V], there's an increase to the general fund. Why isn't more of this money just being put into roads?”

The “police and streets tax,” as it’s been called by the public, has been criticized for being used to create a “slush fund” for the city since its inception in 2012.

During his presentation of the department's budget to council, Police Chief Ron Strand stressed the challenges in maintaining public safety and the importance of Measure V in “keeping the police whole.”

Since the passage of Proposition 47 in 2014, Ridgecrest has seen a significant increase in Part 1 crimes (violent and property crimes including aggravated assault, rape, robbery, arson and theft).

According to Strand's presentation, changes in crime since 2014 include a 21-percent increase in property crimes and an 18-percent increase in violent crimes, including the number of reported rapes increasing from 9 to 24.

“It is concerning,” said Strand. “We're not always talking cases of stranger rape. A lot of these are where the perpetrator is known to the victim.”

The total proposed budget for the police department is about $7 million, about $500,000 more than 2017.

Measure V wasn't the only potential slush fund that Rajtora expressed concerns about. He has often been critical of the city's wastewater fund, holding more than $12 million and projected to be roughly $17 million in FY 2018.

“It's a lot of money and the general public doesn't understand what all that money is doing in there,” said Rajtora.

Wastewater fees have more than tripled over the last several years and the city is still deciding on a site for its new wastewater facility. There is also the possibility the new facility will be fully financed, leaving members of the public wondering why they are paying so much upfront through their fees.

Parks and Recreation Supervisor Jason Patin also delivered his department's budget proposal of roughly $1.7 million, up about $30,000 from last year's budget. Most of the increase is under parks facilities and maintenance.

“This is really the biggest one,” said Patin. “Year by year, it's drastically different. We never know what is going to break and where.”

Talk of parks and recreation sparked discussion of the recent Pinney Pool closure, and Patin said that he is looking into the costs of bringing the pool back to ADA compliance. He added that the pool generates about half of the revenue that it costs to run, but this is relatively normal with public pools.

In the interim, council has already approved plans for a splash pad at Freedom Park and the Indian Wells Valley Economic Development Committee is developing plans for a large-scale aquatics center for recreational and competitive use.

Consultant Counsilman-Hunsaker has scheduled a meeting to receive input on the aquatics facility for Thursday, June 22, 5:30 p.m. at SpringHill Suites.

Gary Parsons, economic development manager for the city, has requested a substantial decrease in his department's annual budget for services, roughly $137,000 down from last year's $202,000. Though the department had budgeted $151,000 last year for “professional services,” it only used $16,600. The department came in under budget in all categories and spent no money on advertising.

For FY 2018, the Economic Development Department has budgeted $129,857 for Professional Services, $50,000 each for the Kosmont and Buxton consulting firms and the rest for miscellaneous expenditures.

Councilmember Wallace Martin asked for Parsons to look into spending less on consultants and more on advertising and marketing.

“My personal take was that Buxton blew [Kosmont] out of the water from a standpoint of efficiency, level of detail, analytics and so on,” said Martin. “I'd rather go with Buxton and put some of that $50,000 towards advertising, trainings and conferences.”

Overall, the proposed budget for the city's general fund for next year is $14.7 million, up from last year's $13.7 million. Projected revenues would also increase the general fund cash reserve from $3,344,156 to $3,356,467.

The Ridgecrest City Council meets tonight, Wednesday, June 7, 6 p.m. at City Hall. For more information, visit www.ridgecrest-ca.gov/city-council. To view the budget documents, visit www.ridgecrest-ca/budget.

Story First Published: 2017-06-07