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Turlock looks to fill additional $1 mil gap

Budget deficit larger than expected; changes in store for CVB, arts, recreation

POSTED May 7, 2010 9:38 p.m.

The Turlock Budget Subcommittee on Thursday learned that what was initially projected as a $4.8 million General Fund deficit for the 2010-2011 fiscal year had ballooned to a $5.49 million deficit, due to previously unrecorded costs of maintaining and operating the city’s streetlights.

“While it’s not good news, it’s important that we get this all fleshed out so we know what we’re doing,” said City Manager Roy Wasden.

The City of Turlock is projected to spend $600,000 next year to operate its streetlights. While state tax dollars used to help fund streetlights, no such dollars are expected this year.

The City Council as a whole will consider options to cut that deficit, including possibly turning off every other streetlight in town — an option already pursued by the City of Fresno. All lights would likely stay on in newer areas of town, where residents are assessed annually to pay for such operations.

“To turn the lights out and say there’s nobody home, that’s ridiculous,” said Forrest White, a Turlocker who has announced his candidacy for City Council in the coming November election.

The City may be able to cut its costs in part through shifting all streetlights to induction lighting, which is currently being tested in a pilot project. Municipal Services Director Dan Madden said the City could potentially save $300,000 in electrical costs and maintenance citywide, though installing the new lights could be costly.

“It’s going to be a policy decision for the whole council,” said Councilman Ted Howze, who sits on the subcommittee. “It’s going to be a policy decision.”

Mayor John Lazar, the other member of the subcommittee, has contacted the Turlock Irrigation District in hopes of obtaining an electricity price break for the streetlights.

The TID could also be asked to help keep Turlock’s pools open, under the premise that offering recreational swimming prevents individuals from swimming in canals. Operating the city’s pools is among Turlock’s largest recreation expenses.

Some change in the city’s swimming schedule is likely without outside assistance. Unprofitable programs such as open swim at the Pitman High School pool are likely first on the chopping block. Howze floated the idea of discontinuing all recreational services at the two Turlock Unified School District pools, and instead offering lessons and open swim solely at the city-owned Columbia Park.

Currently, though, swim lessons aren’t in demand at Columbia Park, according to City Recreation Superintendant Juliene Flanders. Lessons are a moneymaking endeavor at Pitman and the Turlock High School pool, she said, while those two sites’ recreational swim is a drain on the recreation budget.

The changes will be part of making the recreation division entirely self-sustaining, with no reliance on General Fund assistance. While council recognizes that some programs may lose money while others are profitable, the division as a whole faces a mandate to break even.

The recreation division will likely change their class offerings, in part, to build new programs with greater community demand — generating increased revenue. An out of town surcharge for non-Turlockers who take recreation programs may be done away with as well, to encourage more signups from across the county and possibly generate increased tax revenues from visitors.

Some increased funding for recreation may come from performing Convention and Visitors Bureau activities within the division, rather than sending tax dollars to operate a CVB in partnership with the Chamber of Commerce. According to Allison VanGuilder, interim division manager of Parks, Recreation, and Facilities Maintenance, recreation staff already perform a CVB function through sport tournament planning and building rental activity.

The Turlock City Arts Commission may also be on the chopping block, following the elimination of a city-funded arts facilitator a year ago. Given the impending construction of the Carnegie Arts Center — a soon to be focal point for the Turlock arts scene — arts commission functions could be transferred to the Carnegie Foundation Board.

“Basically, the city would get out of the arts commission business,” Howze said.

“And I like that too,” Lazar said.

The subcommittee is investigating farming out other city operations as well, including fleet maintenance. Currently, city departments are billed by fleet maintenance for vehicle repair and maintenance that is more costly than those provided by outside companies.

“I don’t see how this department is sustainable in any way when we can go out and privatize at a much lower rate than what we have here,” Howze said.

Council will hear an informational item on the costs and benefits of outsourcing fleet maintenance at their May 25 meeting. The change could significantly affect how the city manages and operates its vehicles.

Rather than out and out privatizing the function, the City of Turlock could look to partner with the City of Modesto for fleet maintenance. This solution may be more workable, given Modesto’s experience in working with Compressed Natural Gas vehicles.

Parks and Building maintenance could also be privatized. The change would likely lower the level of park maintenance to bimonthly, but could save the city money.

“We will need some direction from the council in terms of what they are comfortable with in terms of service levels,” VanGuilder said.

Even if those maintenance functions are privatized, some in house staff may be retained to care for Pedretti Park and the Turlock Regional Sports Complex, which require near-daily work to host tournaments. Those parks’ maintenance staffers could also provide emergency service to address issues such as downed trees in other parks.

The change could end up being more costly than the existing service, which relies in part on workers performing free, court-mandated public service through the Alternative Work Program. If the city privatized their parks staff, it would not be eligible for AWP workers.

“It’s pound foolish to walk away from that,” White said. “… You might as well take advantage of free work.”

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

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