The Lompoc City Council on Wednesday night inched closer to adopting a budget that could see significant staffing cuts, including some within public safety departments.
During a lengthy — and at times contentious — public workshop, the City Council voted unanimously to direct staff to develop a draft of the 2019-21 biennial budget that includes several positions either left unfilled or eliminated, and to present that draft at a special meeting scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 28, at City Hall.
A key aspect of the direction from the council was that the draft budget not take into account any projected revenue from a potential sales tax increase.
A 1% sales tax hike has been recommended by city staff throughout this year’s budget discussions and has been a point of contention for many residents, several of whom rallied this month at City Hall for — and some against — putting a tax measure on a future ballot.
“I think it would be foolhardy to pass a budget predicated on the passage of a tax,” Councilman Jim Mosby said before proposing that the council discuss a potential tax measure only after passing this year’s budget.
Displaying signs that carried messages such as “Votes Not Cuts” and “Services and Safety over Dictatorship and Bankruptcy,” dozens of Lompoc community members rallied in front of City Hall on Tuesday evening in an effort to get a sales tax increase put on a future ballot. The demonstration was held prior to Tuesday’s regular meeting of the Lompoc City Council, and continued a debate that has carried on for parts of two years inside City Hall.
The motion that was ultimately passed Wednesday calls for cuts that were proposed as part of two separate options presented to the council by city staff.
The most severe of those options is projected to cut the city’s deficit from nearly $3.6 million to $835,000 by eliminating all of code enforcement, economic development (including contributions to the Lompoc Chamber of Commerce), the city’s public information officer, two planning positions and a fire battalion chief.
That option also would hold vacant three police positions and suspend some fire department positions.
Mayor Jenelle Osborne was most outspoken against that option, as it could lead to layoffs as soon as this summer.
The other option, from which the council directed staff to utilize some elements, called for two police positions and two parks positions that are already vacant to remain that way, and for the city manager to use his discretion to hold other general fund positions that cost the city about $453,000.
That option also included the elimination of a planning position, a vacant economic development position, a vacant part-time recreation position and the reduction of $300,000 per year in Fire Department overtime at the discretion of the fire chief.
Those scenarios were presented by Lompoc Finance Manager Dean Albro, who still recommended the tax hike on top of those cuts.
“I’m sorry; it’s the best way out of this,” Albro said of placing a sales tax increase on a future ballot. “It’s the smartest money that we can do.”
Lompoc Mayor Jenelle Osborne delivered a sobering State of the City presentation Thursday afternoon that emphasized several of the challenges — particularly those related to projected budget shortfalls — that the city is already dealing with or will be navigating in the near future. Before concluding, however, she assured her audience of mostly business and civic leaders that the tone wasn’t meant to be somber.
That point was again contested by councilmen Mosby, Dirk Starbuck and Victor Vega.
All three indicated they would be open to discussing a tax measure but only after this budget is passed.
In Mosby’s original version of the motion that was ultimately passed Wednesday, he initially called for a tax discussion in August, but that was later removed after the council decided to readdress the issue at the May 28 meeting.
Wednesday's meeting opened, much like the April 17 budget workshop, with city department heads making presentations on the ways that cuts could affect their respective departments.
This time, though, they also listed their needs, as per direction given by the council at that April 17 meeting.
Vega and Mosby both indicated they felt those presentations were just rehashing what was already discussed April 17, but Osborne said she felt they were altered and were important enough to allow them to continue.
Lompoc City Councilman Jim Mosby will host an open community forum from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, May 16, in Room 105 at the Dick DeWees Community…
Vega seemed to particularly take issue with that assessment and said he felt it was “disrespectful” that staff continued to push for a sales tax increase despite the council majority requesting that a draft budget be developed without any potential new tax funds.
“By majority vote, we should be respecting that decision, and it seems like the balanced budget should have come first instead of the dance for the tax,” Vega said.
“The tax may be a necessary evil, but I think it’s disrespectful [of] the fact that we had a majority vote and it wasn’t adhered to and instead we get a duplicate presentation over and over again.”
Osborne again voiced her disagreement with Vega's comments, and she and Vega engaged in a back-and-forth over the direction given to staff by the City Council and the merits of discussing a tax before balancing the budget.
In other tax-related talk, the City Council was briefed by city attorney Jeff Malawy on the legal parameters of placing a tax measure on a ballot.
Malawy noted the council could opt for either a general tax, which would allow the city to delegate how the funds are spent, or a special tax, which would carry specific guidelines on how the money is used.
A general tax would require a simple majority from the electorate to pass, while a special tax would need support from 67%, or two-thirds, of voters.
The tax could go on a special ballot as soon as this November, or on a general election ballot in November 2020.
The city of Lompoc’s budget discussions kicked off in earnest Wednesday night as city department heads detailed the ways in which cuts could negatively impact the community, and at least one City Council member called for slashing the salaries of city administrators. Wednesday’s workshop was the City Council’s first full meeting dedicated solely to the city’s 2019-21 biennial budget, which is facing a deficit projected at nearly $4 million. Community members filled the council chambers for the four-hour meeting, which ended in an impasse with council members giving direction for staff to compile further data to present at a future budget meeting.
In response to a question from Mosby, Malawy also confirmed that the measure could be placed on the ballot via a citizens’ initiative.
City staff also made a presentation that detailed the ways other cities have introduced sales tax increases in their communities and how those funds were utilized.
The cities that were highlighted included some near to Lompoc, like Santa Barbara and Santa Maria, and some a bit further away, like Pasadena and Palm Springs.
Lompoc Fire Chief Gerald Kuras, who advocated for having the tax measure placed on a ballot, was perhaps most direct in expressing what he felt was a dire state the city finds itself in.
Kuras, who told the City Council the Fire Department would be severely diminished by any future cuts, said early in his presentation that he felt the council members were the ones now in a position to make a daring rescue.
“I feel that Lompoc is kind of like the Titanic right now,” he said. “We already have hit the iceberg and people are bailing off. The ship is sinking, but you, the council, have the power to save the people by throwing them a life preserver. It’s really quite simple: Give them the vote.”
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