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.
City Manager Jim Throop, who continued to face resistance to his proposed ballot measure for a 1% increase in local sales tax, kicked off the workshop by launching into a presentation that included several department leaders discussing the ways that across-the-board cuts of 8.7% would affect city services.
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.
While all of the administrators expressed serious concerns with the hypothetical cuts, Fire Chief Gerald Kuras offered what was perhaps the bleakest projection.
“At this point, we might even want to look at dissolving our fire department and becoming part of the fire district [with Santa Barbara County],” Kuras said of the potential cuts, after noting that the Lompoc Fire Department would lose its rescue unit if forced to make such budget reductions. “We’ll no longer be able to have an effective response force.”
Throop said he asked each department head to come up with a budget reflecting 8.7% reductions, even though city guidelines suggest not administering across-the-board cuts in that way. In explaining his rationale, Throop said that times of deficits sometimes call for deviations from guidelines.
“The plan, when we were going through all this, was to show the gravity of the situation because we are in a position of big cuts, no matter how you want to look at it,” Throop said after the staff presentation. “There are going to be some very substantial cuts.”
The ways in which the city departments would be significantly impacted by the hypothetical cuts, according to the head of each respective department:
- The Fire Department would have to trim about $504,000, which would lead to three fewer firefighters, the loss of the Rescue 1 engine, and operational cuts in areas of public education, community risk reduction, fire investigation, training, and the elimination of the Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT, program.
- The Police Department would need to cut about $809,000, which would lead to six fewer officers for a department that Chief Joe Mariani described as already understaffed with just 44 officers, a drop from recent years and back to the staffing levels of 1999. “There’s nothing else to cut but people at this point,” Mariani said.
- Playground equipment could be removed as maintenance declines at city parks; planning and building staff could be eliminated; and the library could face the prospect of closing on Mondays, cutting staff and eliminating many of its literacy programs.
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While those presentations offered a grim outlook, some members of the City Council pointed out that cuts to the public safety departments were not likely to be recommended.
Further, Councilman Dirk Starbuck asked city staff to prepare a budget that takes into account across-the-board cuts in pay — he suggested starting at 10 percent — for city administrators, rather than starting the cuts by slashing services to residents.
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Starbuck referred to the city’s top salaries as the “highest level of fat in this budget.”
Finance Director Dean Albro said he would be able to prepare such a draft but that it wasn’t as simple as it may sound since some employees draw their salaries from several areas and not just the general fund.
Councilwoman Gilda Cordova said she wouldn’t be comfortable with asking people to take pay cuts, but she suggested that pay freezes or furloughs could be an option.
Throop continued to suggest that the city would not be able to simply cut its way out of its current hole as he noted that about 80% to 85% of the general fund goes toward public safety, a ratio that he said leaves “a very small piece of pie to fix everything else off of.”
“Mathematically, I don’t know how that’s going to happen,” he said.
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Even if the city laid off every employee at City Hall whose salary comes from the general fund, Throop said, that would lead to only about $1.3 million in savings, but would severely impact city services.
Councilman Jim Mosby suggested that the city seek out grants to help in some areas.
No date was set for the next budget workshop, at which it is expected that staff will present new drafts that take into account salary cuts.
One of the major issues negatively impacting the city’s budget is its unfunded liability to CalPERS, the state’s pension program. Lompoc, according to city staff, has about $84 million in debt on its books, in large part from those pensions.
“This is a very big budget crisis we’re in,” Throop said.
“We’re reaching that point of no return on trying to fix the problem,” he added, “so we have to make some tough decisions.”