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City to be ‘lean, but effective’ in future

POSTED March 15, 2011 10:09 p.m.

For the last three years, the Turlock City Council has been in a reactionary mode – by members’ own admission.

Rapidly declining tax revenues have forced emergency budget cuts. Desperate moves to balance costs and expenditures were made – all without the benefit of a long-term plan to guide the vision of what a future, slimmer City of Turlock might look like.

On Monday, the Turlock City Council took a step back from the constant cutting to update its strategic plan, a document which has not been examined since 2007 and expired in 2009.

The meeting started out by establishing a vision for Turlock, emphasizing the city’s quality of life, agricultural heritage, and desire to build a sustainable community. But discussion quickly turned to the specific workings of individual departments, and the city budget as a whole.

“We will continue to be lean, but effective,” City Manager Roy Wasden said, advocating for a balanced, sustainable budget within 36 months.

Part of making Turlock sustainable will be value-added partnerships with public and private institutions, including California State University, Stanislaus. Grants, especially for police and fire services, will play a role.

New or expanded fees may play a part, including a Community Facilities District fee which helps pay for public safety services. That fee already exists for new development, but doesn’t fully cover the costs of providing public safety services and may be raised.

Another suggestion was to dissolve all of the benefit assessment districts – which assess fees to fund street maintenance, street lighting and landscaping in a certain geographic area – and combine all of Turlock into one, large assessment district.

“Half of Turlock is in an assessment district,” Mayor John Lazar said. “And the other half is (upset about) their roads.”

But approving any such fee change would require a majority of Turlockers to agree, which City Engineer Mike Pitcock termed, “a tough vote.”

Other changes could see departments consolidate, either within Turlock or regionally.

Currently in progress is a move to have Turlock Police Support Services assist the fire department as well, which would eliminate some positions. Police Chief Gary Hampton is already sharing a secretary with Fire Chief Tim Lohman.

Turlock Fire could absorb Turlock Rural, Keyes, Mountain View or Denair’s fire districts to save money regionally.

And one controversial proposal could see Parks and Recreation absorbed into the police department. The move wouldn’t save money directly, as each department would operate independent budgets, but would possibly open up grant opportunities for community-oriented policing while building on the crime-prevention aspects of youth activities.

“I’m willing to look at anything,” Lazar said. “We have to. But I just don’t want to lose recreation services to the lofty goals of the police department.”

Parks and recreation were briefly under the purview of the police department in the 2000’s, but were made a separate division again when the arrangement did not work. The division occupies an odd place now in the city’s hierarchy, though, as it operates as a semi-autonomous wing of Municipal Services.

The council also looked to the future with their strategic plan, considering the long-discussed possible regional surface water treatment plant, a $183 million project to turn river water into drinking water. That project is likely 10 years down the road, Councilman Forrest White said. Planning for future wastewater needs, highway interchanges – including a revised Fulkerth Road interchange – and bike paths and routes also made the plan.

Some of those future changes – and state-mandated changes to water sales – may result in higher water and wastewater fees for Turlockers.

“There is no good time to raise rates, and this time is even a worse time to raise rates,” said Turlock Municipal Services Director Dan Madden.

Council will likely entertain a staff recommendation on water rate changes in October or November.

Despite the work on Monday, a follow-up meeting will be required to complete work on the strategic plan update. Key areas such as social infrastructure – containing a teen center proposal, new library suggestion, and a plan to address homelessness – have yet to be addressed.

The council will meet again at 4 p.m. on April 4 to continue work on the strategic plan.  But after the work is done, this plan won’t just sit in a drawer as the last one did.

“We will, on an annual basis with the budget, revisit this strategic plan,” Wasden said.

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

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