The Lompoc City Council engaged in another lengthy deliberation of the city’s upcoming budget on Thursday evening, and for the first time, the governing body reached a unanimous decision.
Late in Thursday’s special meeting to discuss the 2017-19 biennial draft budget, the council acted on a suggestion from City Manager Patrick Wiemiller to adopt a resolution that would allow the city to extend the discussions past the June 30 deadline to adopt a budget. After city staff presented the council members with copies of a resolution that had already been drafted, Councilman Victor Vega made a motion to adopt the resolution and extend the budget deadline to Aug. 31.
That motion passed 5-0. With the resolution, the city’s current budget will be extended past June 30 and city operations will continue as they have been under the current budget until whatever time the new budget is adopted.
“I think we all want to be able to come to a balanced budget at this point and get it done, but I’m glad we’ve got that as a backup plan,” Mayor Bob Lingl said prior to the vote on the extension.
The council will continue its draft discussions at its next regular meeting on June 20, and the group also agreed Thursday to schedule a third budget-only hearing for June 26.
Thursday’s vote to extend the deadline was the only budget-related motion supported by all of the council members — not just Thursday, but also including the first budget-only hearing on May 30 and the three regular City Council meetings that have included budget talks since the initial draft budget was presented May 2.
Although the members of the council acknowledged that the extension was needed, since none of them believed they would reach agreement on a budget by June 30, at least a few of them said they felt like Thursday’s meeting, which neared four hours, was the most productive yet.
Among the decisions made Thursday, the council voted 3-2 to move forward with reconsideration of each of the three new tax measures — a half-cent sales tax increase, a 2-percent increase in Transient Occupancy Taxes and a 6-percent utility users tax — that were proposed in the initial draft budget. The motion to do so was made by Lingl, and supported by council members Jenelle Osborne and Dirk Starbuck.
That move essentially reversed the council’s 3-2 vote on May 30 to proceed with the potential taxes taken off the table. Councilman Jim Mosby had made that motion, which received support from Vega and Starbuck. That May 30 vote had already been partially overruled when Starbuck, Lingl and Osborne voted June 6 to have city staff bring the budget back Thursday with the half-cent sales tax factored back in.
Also Thursday, the council made a list of recommendations that they’d like to see implemented into the budget by city staff. Among them: Mosby asked Wiemiller to return with budget drafts that showed across-the-board general fund cuts of 4 percent, 5 percent and 6 percent.
Mosby said he was inspired to make the request after seeing Santa Barbara County officials, whom he said were in a similar “conundrum” as the Lompoc council, make similar indiscriminate cuts for draft budgets. Mosby said he considered the slashes to be more “equitable” than having city administrators pick and choose the areas that would bear the brunt of the cuts.
“I think we’re in that level or position right now and maybe that’s the path we should be on, to duplicate what they’re doing,” he said, referring to county administrators.
Cuts of 5 to 6 percent to the general fund would amount to savings of about $3.4 million, according to city staff.
The primary reason Lompoc needs to either slash its budget or raise revenue through tax measures, according to city staff, is so the city can pay off its $70 million obligation to CalPERS, the state’s pension system.
On Thursday, Osborne introduced the idea of the city seeking a pension obligation bond. In order to go that route, though, Wiemiller said the city would need to have the three tax measures on the November 2018 ballot.
Osborne suggested that the bond would allow the city to “aggressively” pay down its pension obligation and then the council could focus on paying off the bond, which Wiemiller said would likely have more favorable terms, as far as interest rates and fees, than the CalPERS debt.
As Thursday night’s discussion progressed, Starbuck said he was disappointed with the revised budget that was presented to the council on June 6 with all the potential tax revenue removed. That version of the budget presented by Wiemiller, a version that Wiemiller said he didn’t support but was only presenting to fulfill the directive he was given from the council, included $1.37 million in cutbacks.
Among those cuts was $710,000 taken away from the parks department, including the closures of Ken Adam Park and River Park; $239,000 in additional cuts to the Lompoc Police Department; $159,000 taken away from the city’s economic development division; and $262,000 in reductions to the city’s general administration, which includes costs associated with events like the Flower Festival Parade.
Starbuck suggested that if the members of the council “sharpened our pencils,” they could come up with a better solution to overcome their budget woes than to take away from public safety and civic services that improve quality of life.
“When the motion was made to not look at any of these taxes, the intention at that point was to put us in a worst-case scenario,” Starbuck said. “What was presented back to us with our worst-case scenario at that time was that we didn’t trim anything in our government here. What we did was we cut our civic assets.
“I was looking for deeper, harder results,” he later added. “Not things that everybody in the city expects and wants.”
Another point of contention among some members of the council, including Starbuck, was that the city is actually planning to add five new positions, despite the budget concerns. Among the new positions planned to be introduced by the city are one in the Public Works Department and four in the Utilities Department.
“We need to come up with $70 million, but we’re growing government still here internally,” Starbuck said in voicing his displeasure.
Thursday’s meeting opened with a presentation from former Guadalupe Mayor Frances Romero, who described to the council how successful tax measures on the 2014 ballot helped Guadalupe recover when it was facing a financial crisis.
Several members of the public also addressed the council with a range of ideas. Four residents spoke in favor of the city adopting pro-marijuana legislation and suggested that allowing cannabis commerce in the city could bring a spike in apparently much-needed revenue.
Former Mayor John Linn also spoke to ask that the council take a vote to affirm that it will not seek bankruptcy. Linn suggested that the city and local businesses have already been harmed just from the prospect of bankruptcy being discussed at the May 30 meeting.
The council did not take such a vote, but Wiemiller and members of the council have said repeatedly that they don’t envision that municipal bankruptcy will become a real possibility.
Other speakers implored the council to come up with backup plans in case the tax measures, if they are even placed on the ballot, don’t succeed.
Also Thursday, Osborne continued the idea of having the city council members give up their stipends and benefits as part of the cuts. She initially made the offer on June 6 to relinquish her own $600 stipend and mileage repayments if it meant that city employees could avoid having their salaries reduced.
Some members of the council also receive some health benefits. The council cannot vote to adjust its current pay, but can vote to change the pay for future councils. Either way, the members are free to refuse payment and have it returned to the city.
Lingl said he supported putting the tax measures on the ballot and letting the community decide on the issue before making cuts to city staff or salaries.
“Our city employees have suffered,” he said, mentioning furloughs and other reductions during the recession of the mid-2000s. “To put it all back on them is not fair. The taxes … takes the pain we are all suffering and spreads it across the entire community, not just on the backs of the employees.”
The June 20 meeting of the Lompoc City Council is slated to begin at 6:30 p.m. in the Council Chambers at City Hall, 100 Civic Center Plaza.