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What should come first, money or a plan?

POSTED September 30, 2011 9:39 p.m.

Should Turlock be practical, given budgetary constraints, or should it aim for the stars?

The question was front and center at a special meeting of the Turlock City Council on Tuesday, where council members went to work updating the city's strategic plan.

The plan, a conceptual long-term planning document which will guide Turlock policy through 2013, has been in the works since March. Before that effort, the document had lain dormant since 2007 and expired in 2009.

The delay and a cancelled April followup meeting intended to continue work on the plan trace their roots to a fundamental question which council members grappled with Tuesday: should the council spend time envisioning an ideal Turlock, or should pressing budget concerns take priority?

Vice Mayor Amy Bublak suggested the council might be better served by setting aside the strategic plan for now, defining the city’s economic situation before envisioning possibly unreachable goals.

“We might need to take two bites out of this apple,” Bublak said. “I wouldn’t want to commit to this when we need to make a big statement about what’s next for our community.”

Already, city departments are running at barebones levels, City Manager Roy Wasden said. An example cited parks maintenance; while a strategic plan goal states Turlock should “provide safe, well designed and attractively maintained park facilities,” declining tax revenues may prevent the city from doing so.

“We’re at that point where if we have to reduce any further, the conversation will become ‘Where do we want to reduce in terms of service levels,’” said Parks, Recreation, and Facilities Maintenance Manager Allison Van Guilder.

Options range from outsourcing park maintenance to a third-party landscaper – one who would likely be less emotionally involved in ensuring the parks’ upkeep, Wasden said – to only landscaping in the summer, letting parks grow wild in winter.  The options may seem grim, but with more than 80 percent of Turlock’s expenditures tied up in salary and benefits, should revenues continue to fall employee cutbacks will likely be unavoidable.

But Councilman Forrest White said the strategic planning meeting was not the time for worrying about budgets, but instead a time to identify goals which will drive the budget process.

“This is a strategic plan,” White said. “This should be what we want to be, good, bad, or indifferent. ... During the budget process we will decide, can we get there or not?”

Council members floated all sorts of ideas at the meeting, ranging from new recreation facilities, to more partnerships with California State University, Stanislaus, to a cultural arts and tourism department to encourage more tourism.  Improving bicycle and road infrastructure also made the plan, as did a commitment to providing “world-class service” in every city department.

The strategic plan update is expected to be finalized by staff prior to the Oct. 11 council meeting, where it will likely be brought before council for final approval.

Soon thereafter, council will embark on the budgetary process, drafting next year’s budget with the strategic plan goals in mind. But council members, like Mary Jackson, admit that not all of those goals may be achievable in the near term.

“I am the dreamer that Forrest is talking about, but I do want you to know even I've whittled down my wish list,” Jackson said.

To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.

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