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City budget proposal to come before council

Street lights, building department expenditures still unresolved

POSTED May 28, 2010 11:32 p.m.

Turlock’s budget is now in the hands of the full City Council — and city employee unions — as the Budget Subcommittee wrapped up their work Friday afternoon.

The final meeting was all about conducting one last run-through of the entire budget, hammering out which recommended cuts would make the final budget proposal. But, even at this late stage, the budget — approximately $4.3 million in deficit — remains in limbo due to ongoing negotiations with city labor unions.

“We’re looking to get some solutions there that would get us a meaningful level of savings to move toward a balanced budget,” said City Manager Roy Wasden.

Only two city unions have concluded labor negotiations thus far, but major service cuts and layoffs could be avoided should unions agree to pay and benefit reductions.

The Turlock Fire Department will be able to avoid cutbacks entirely because of their union negotiations, the subcommittee learned Friday, which will save $491,000. That’s more than the $300,000 the city had hoped to cut from the fire budget.

The solution will see Fire Chief Mark Langley retire, saving the city $211,000. Also, two other senior fire officials will retire early, with the labor group paying the additional costs of the early retirements.

Fire employees also agreed to two fewer vacation days each year and a reduced city contribution to retiree health care, dropping by three percent over the next three years.

Union negotiations with the remaining bargaining groups should last two more weeks, Wasden said. The final budget will come before the assembled Turlock City Council at the June 22 meeting.

Hopes of reaching lucrative cost saving agreements with other city unions inspired the subcommittee to hold off on some other cuts, including a proposed $600,000 cut to the Turlock Police Department.

That cut would have called for elimination of the K-9 program, the Police Cadet program, a crime analyst, a part time communications dispatcher, two background investigators, and an animal services officer, in part. The reduction would have also seen the police department lobby close to walk-in crime reporting two days a week and slashed a transcription service, forcing police officers to spend hours each day typing up reports.

But those cuts could come back on the table if labor negotiations aren’t fruitful, warned councilman and subcommittee member Ted Howze.

“If officers want to write more reports, they hold that power in their hands,” Howze said.

 

Rec swim to end at Turlock, Pitman

Some other departments were able to work out budget reductions that were agreeable to subcommittee members, cutting costs without cutting jobs.

Recreation will suspend recreational swim programs at the Turlock and Pitman high school pools, though profitable swim lessons will continue at those locations. The Recreation Division will also look to adjust program fees, raising the cost of swim lessons by $3. Recreational swim would continue at Columbia Park under the proposal.

Part-time recreation worker wages may also be cut by $1 per hour, saving the city $36,000.

“We want to be competitive (on part-time wages) but we don’t want to be overboard either,” Howze said.

In an agreement with the Turlock Chamber of Commerce, which currently performs Convention and Visitors Bureau functions, $41,000 in hotel taxes will return to the Recreation Division budget. The change will see less duplication of services between the CVB and the Recreation Division, which has been promoting and scheduling sport tournaments without receiving funds to do so.

Parks, streets and public facilities maintenance would be held at last year’s levels under the proposal, but could be outsourced if the city learns such a move would save money.

The Planning Department, which was asked to cut 20 percent from its budget, will fund one planner with redevelopment housing funds rather than slashing the position. That planner will be devoted to reworking the antiquated Downtown Design Guidelines, possibly drafting a plan which could see downtown buildings grow to five stories in height and incorporate housing units.

 

Some cuts disputed

Howze and fellow subcommittee member Mayor John Lazar disagreed on a few cuts proposed Friday, however, arguing how to balance costs versus service levels.

In order to bring the building department’s costs and revenues into balance, one more building inspector would have to be cut this year. An additional position may need to be cut next year.

While those cuts would make the department cost neutral, they would also cut back on inspectors’ ability to perform timely, in-depth reviews. The Building Department lost seven employees in last year’s budget.

The city engineering department faces even deeper cuts, with two pending retirements and a need to layoff a public works inspector and an office assistant.

Those disputed cuts will come before the council as a whole for a final decision.

A final budget sinkhole — with no clear solution — is the city’s $590,000 ongoing cost in maintaining and powering streetlights.

A federal government funded program to switch out 1,800 lights with more energy efficient, lower maintenance induction bulbs will cut costs by $75,000 this year, but will not come close to closing the gap.

The City of Turlock is currently in talks with the Turlock Irrigation District about a possible solution to reduce electricity costs for streetlights, but no conclusion has been reached. The city will continue to seek solutions to close the streetlight deficit.

“I think this is an issue where we can’t just approve keeping the lights on right now and forget about it for another year,” Howze said.

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

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