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Glass half full even if city coffers empty

POSTED June 27, 2009 3:57 p.m.
If I were to make a list of people that I’m not envious of, “Turlock City Councilmembers” would be sitting pretty at number one.
The annual budget process is a hellacious time. No one ever leaves the negotiating table happy, even in years when there is more than enough money to go around.
Then-Vice Mayor Kurt Vander Weide summed up last year’s budget process — a knives out, expletive filled festival of accounting and arguments — as “overly laborious, the process is antiquated, and I believe if I use the word correctly, Mr. Attorney can correct me here, arcane.”
“Arcane works, yeah,” responded then-City Attorney Dick Burton.
While there were far fewer fireworks in this year’s budget meetings, the process was, if anything, even more laborious than last year. As the City Council was forced to bid adieu to more than 20 city employees, some with as much as 20 years of service to Turlock, I came to realize something.
As easy as it is to point our fingers at the five elected officials sitting at the dais, to cast them as uncaring, harsh, and cold-hearted individuals who care only about the bottom line, I don’t think it’s a fair assessment. I think these are just five people trying to do their job the best they can, with extremely limited resources.
The councilmembers are not to be blamed for the housing bubble bursting. The councilmembers are not responsible for the mismanagement of the state government.
All that the council can do is to allocate the money they are given. If the money’s not there, then services have to be cut.
Creating a budget that satisfies every constituent is an impossible job. Demands are placed upon a limited amount of funding from every angle.
Making matters even worse, the sitting council really doesn’t have that much input on how vast swaths of their budget must be allocated.
A large percentage of city budget expenditures go toward mandated state and federal programs, things the council can’t avoid spending their limited funding on. Other local costs, such as wastewater treatment, police and fire services, and road and parks maintenance are unavoidable for the city to maintain basic services.
When budget reductions have to occur, the council has very few non-essential services to cut from. The loss of an arts facilitator, a recreation division manager, and half of the building department will pain the city, but it will survive.
Sure, there are those who will argue that the council misspends money on issues such as the recent city manager debacle, various studies, and anything related to a homeless shelter, but generally speaking I’d argue that the board has been fairly tight with their purse strings. Were it not for watchful spending over the past decades, Turlock would be in an even worse position today.
And, if nothing else, you have to expect a mistake or two from a group of a group of private citizens, most of whom have no prior experience with city management or budgets before volunteering to serve their community. The councilmembers are just people like you and I, trying to make sense of years worth of past council decisions and policy to save the core of the City of Turlock.
I think there’s a valuable lesson to be learned here. And that is, quite simply, you shouldn’t rely on the government to provide you with anything beyond public safety and infrastructure services. Because, at its core, that’s what government is all about.
If you are passionate about the arts and disappointed that the city council fired Lisa McDermott to make ends this year, well, do something about it. Stop giving your money to the city arts program and, instead, start a new program that isn’t at the whim of five people who rightly care more about firefighters than watercolorists.
If you are former Chief Building Official Mark Ellis, as much as it may not seem like it, you’ve been handed a great opportunity by the City of Turlock. Give a few of your former colleagues a call and start up a private consulting firm, providing all those services that the city will no longer be able to.
If you love baton twirling, belly dancing, or any of the myriad other recreation programs cut by the city, then why should it matter that Turlock can’t afford to keep the class running? Call some classmates and start a troupe of taiko drummers; band together with fellow teenagers and form your own babysitters’ club to offer lessons.
This community has proven its ability to rise above challenges before.
When Turlock found out that the Fourth of July fireworks at California State University, Stanislaus, were going to be canceled due to budgetary issues, citizens did not take the news lying down. They pitched in and planned a new celebration in just a few weeks, quickly working out a way to keep bombs bursting in the air over Turlock.
In a time when the state and city cannot provide many of the services that Turlockers hold dear, it is up to you and I to fill the gap and ensure that we don’t let a few tough government decisions destroy the things we value in our community.
If you’ll allow me to paraphrase, Turlockers, ask not what your city can do for you; ask what you can do for your city.
To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.

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