The Lompoc City Council made plans to tackle its budget woes Tuesday night, and also voted to not enact water rate increases after an extended discussion that included an angry outburst from the city’s utilities director.
Tuesday’s meeting was the first since City Manager Patrick Wiemiller revealed his proposed biennial budget for fiscal years 2017-19. That proposal, which was introduced at the May 2 City Council meeting, featured many cuts, including recommended defunding for all outside agencies in the city. Some representatives of those agencies addressed the council Tuesday night, before the council members ultimately decided to schedule a pair of budget workshops outside of council meetings to discuss the issues more extensively.
The public workshops, which were suggested by Councilwoman Jenelle Osborne and passed unanimously, will be held Tuesday, May 30, and Thursday, June 8. Both will begin at 6:30 p.m. in the Council Chambers at City Hall. The council left open the option to schedule more budget hearings, if more are deemed necessary, ahead of the July 1 deadline to adopt the budget.
Despite the decision to explore the budget further at the special meetings, the council and a handful of community members offered their thoughts Tuesday on the recommended budget.
Councilman Dirk Starbuck particularly took issue with city staff’s proposal to place three tax measures on the 2018 ballot. The taxes, which would primarily go toward paying the city’s $70 million pension debt, would include a half-cent sales tax increase, a 2-percent increase in Transient Occupancy Taxes, or hotel taxes, and a 6-percent utility tax increase.
“There’s other ways than taxes,” Starbuck said, before adding that he felt the measures “will never fly” in Lompoc.
He suggested that eliminating impact fees altogether and expanding the city’s borders would be a better way to increase revenue.
“The only way we’re gonna be able to fix this is to build homes — homes that will contribute directly to our general fund, to our enterprises,” he said.
“It’s time for the city to stretch its arms and grow,” he later added.
Mayor Bob Lingl suggested that the council should make it a priority to provide funding for a new fire engine for the Lompoc Fire Department. To come up with the cost for the engine, which is estimated to be about $800,000, he suggested the city should dip into its emergency reserves, if needed.
Among the members of the public who spoke at the meeting was Amber Wilson, the president/CEO of the Lompoc Chamber of Commerce, and two members of the Lompoc Museum board of trustees. Each of them implored the council to not cut its funding to their respective agency.
“There is no other agency that provides the unique and diverse services that the Chamber of Commerce provides, and the elimination of chamber funding would certainly mean the elimination of these programs and services,” Wilson told the council. “Every attempt is being made to identify alternative revenue sources, but with little notice, the initial impact could be devastating.”
James Carucci, a museum trustee, expressed a similar sentiment. He said he considers the relationship between the museum and city to be “nonseverable.”
“We would not be able to continue without your 50- to 60-percent funding,” he said. “It’s just not possible for us to generate the funds that we need and continue to provide the services that we have been providing since 1969-1970.”
In the longest discussion of the night, the council was tasked with deciding on whether to affirm increases to water, wastewater and solid waste rates that had been approved by the council in 2013 as part of a five-year plan. The item was initially placed on the consent portion of the agenda, which is typically where more routine topics are included, but was pulled for further discussion at the end of the meeting.
City staff was seeking affirmation of a 26-percent hike in water service charge rates and fees, a 10.5-percent rise for wastewater fees and a 3.6-percent increase in solid waste collection and landfill fees. The new rates, set to become effective July 1, would “provide the city with financial resources to achieve the goals set out at the time the rates were initially adopted,” according to city staff.
Councilman Jim Mosby, in particular, took issue with the increases and said he felt like he needed to see the revenue data from the previous years’ increases before making a decision to affirm this year’s. Brad Wilkie, the city’s management services director, told Mosby that the desired data wouldn’t be available until December.
During the discussion of the issue, Lompoc Utilities Director Larry Bean, who hadn’t been involved in the conversation up to that point, stood up from the audience and asked to approach the podium. After being granted that permission, he accused Mosby of making "no sense" with his argument regarding a lack of revenue data, and Bean seemed incredulous with Mosby’s position.
“You can argue that you don’t want to raise wastewater rates, that’s fine,” he told Mosby, “but don’t use this argument that it didn’t increase revenues. Because it did.”
After Bean walked away from the podium, Wiemiller apologized to the council for “staff’s outburst.”
After more discussion of the issue, Lingl made a motion to accept staff’s recommendation. That motion died with no second.
Mosby then made a motion to move forward with only the 3.6-percent solid waste rate increase, and to hold off on the water and wastewater hikes. Councilman Victor Vega gave him a second but then later rescinded that second when he realized that the motion would include the solid waste increase.
The motion then died on the floor, which would have led to the rates going into effect as per state guidelines. After that was made clear by Wiemiller and City Attorney Joseph Pannone, Vega offered to give back his second of Mosby’s proposal if Mosby were willing to reintroduce his motion.
This led to Mosby making his motion again, and the motion ultimately passed with a 3-2 vote. Lingl and Osborne provided the dissenting votes.
Next up for the council will be a special meeting Tuesday, May 23, that will focus on homelessness within the city. The meeting was proposed by Lingl, who said that representatives from various agencies are slated to attend the meeting to discuss the issues in depth.
That meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. in the Council Chambers at City Hall.