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Council approves city budget

Recreational swim saved; union negotiations ongoing

POSTED June 22, 2010 11:20 p.m.

The Turlock City Council on Tuesday approved the 2010-2011 budget, which includes no layoffs and keeps the city’s recreational swim program while saving millions from the city’s bottom line.

The majority of the savings came from a more than $1 million revision to a city policy that overfunded self-insurance accounts for workers compensation and unemployment insurance. Other savings came through retirements, some spending reductions, and insurance changes.

But the budget is still a work in progress, with some significant problems yet to be solved.

“We’ve pushed a lot of things off into the future that still need to be addressed,” said Vice Mayor Kurt Spycher.

Despite the cutbacks, the adopted General Fund budget remains $3.6 million in deficit. That’s better than the $5.5 million deficit at the start of work on the budget, but short of the approximately $3 million deficit the city had hoped to achieve.

Turlock currently has $17.4 million in General Fund reserves to bridge that deficit, a figure bolstered this year by the return of $5.3 million held in the aforementioned overfunded self-insurance accounts.

The deficit may change over the coming weeks, however, as negotiations with city unions have yet to conclude. According to the council budget synopsis, the city expects to attain over $1 million in concessions, not including an additional approximate $600,000 in savings that could come from healthcare benefit changes.

The council held off on making some decisions Tuesday as a result of those pending negotiations, including a proposed $600,000 cut to the Turlock Police Department that would have led to layoffs and the elimination of the K-9 program. A July 15 deadline was set to complete negotiations, at which time that cut will be reconsidered if concessions fail to generate the necessary savings.

On a split vote, the council also held off on firing a building inspector, an engineering inspector, and an engineering office assistant. City Engineer Mike Pitcock said the cut would reduce staffing levels to meet the current level of work, but would also reduce the amount of time inspectors could spend with clients.

Spycher and Councilmember Ted Howze supported the move, which would prevent the building and engineering departments from going into the red next year.

“If you don’t layoff now the hole gets bigger and you have to cut deeper,” Howze said.

Council members Amy Bublak, Mary Jackson, and Mayor John Lazar opposed the cut, which they said could reduce customer service levels and leave the city unable to deal with new work that comes in. At Bublak’s direction, the issue of layoffs will come back before the council in six months with analysis of the then-current workload.

In other money-saving measures, the council approved a $566,290 grant-funded project to replace 1,800 streetlights with energy-efficient induction lights. The project will save the cash-strapped streetlights fund — once funded by state transportation funds that have been withheld for years — upward of $170,000 in electricity costs each year. The project will also generate a $47,000 energy efficiency rebate from the Turlock Irrigation District.

Those induction lights will be installed first at 1,600 streetlights considered crucial to safety — those at intersections and along arterials. Three city parks will receive 74 bulbs, and the remaining will go into assessment districts, where homeowners help pay for their lighting bills. 

The city council opted to install those remaining lights in assessment districts as, per the terms of the grant, the city will be required to operate the induction lights for the next 10 years. If the city finds itself in harsher times, the move will allow the city to turn off some non-essential streetlights to save on electricity costs.

 

Rec swim to continue

Thanks in large part to community donations, the recreational swim program at the Turlock High School and Pitman High School pools will continue this year. The future of the swim program, which costs $18,000 annually, had been in doubt at the June 8 council meeting.

But in just two weeks, the City of Turlock received $8,425 in donations from a number of community groups, city labor unions, businesses, and independent Turlockers to save rec swim at Turlock High School. The firefighters union announced Tuesday — with novelty oversized check in hand — they would contribute an additional $6,000 to keep the Pitman High School pool open.

“That’s fantastic,” said Allison Van Guilder, interim division manager of Parks, Recreation, and Facilities Maintenance to uproarious audience applause. “Our goal was to try to keep the pools open for the month of July into August and that more than exceeds that need.”

The magnitude of the donations wasn’t lost on council members.

“I’m just floored,” Spycher said. “This speaks so highly of our community when they see the value of something how they get behind it and support it.”

“That’s why we’re proud to live in Turlock,” said Jackson, who suggested the council seek out donations from the community. Jackson also recommended Tuesday that staff pursue the creation of a Parks and Recreation Foundation to fund future rec programs.

While the $14,425 in donations doesn’t quite meet the $18,000 cost of the program, the council committed to funding the remainder of swim costs through savings generated by eliminating health benefits for elected officials.

The council unanimously agreed to defund elected official health insurance — an annual cost of $90,000 — as of Sept. 1. While the budget year begins July 1, the Sept. 1 date is expected to give Spycher and Lazar, who use the city health insurance, time to locate new coverage.

The elimination of elected official health insurance, first discussed in a contentious special council meeting June 17, remained controversial Tuesday evening.

Some council members and audience speakers remained concerned that cutting health insurance might discourage some less well-off Turlockers from running for council. But the majority of council members saw the healthcare cut as leading by example, showing city employees their own willingness to suffer.

Given the laborious, stressful nature of this year’s budget proceedings, Lazar joked he was glad the city healthcare plan was in effect for the past few months.

“I’m just fortunate that we had health benefits during this because I needed them,” Lazar said.

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

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