The Turlock City Council is trying to get the word out to every resident in town that the City is in financial crisis — and something needs to be done, soon. For the majority of the Council, that something is a new tax. However, Mayor Amy Bublak is not convinced.
The Council received an update on the state of City finances by Interim City Manager Michael Cooke on Tuesday, the same report he will be presenting at all four of the special budget workshops that the City is holding at different locations throughout town.
“We’re struggling with long-term fiscal instability, and with declining levels of service,” Cooke told the Council.
The Council has been spending down its reserves over the past several years and now it’s at a historically low point going from close to $20 million in 2010/11 to approximately $7 million today.
In June, the Council adopted a budget that resulted in a drastic tightening of the City’s financial belt with significant impacts to what services are provided to Turlock residents.
Cooke presented a list to the Council of types of services they’ve cut back on in the past five to 10 years, including fewer police officers on patrol, less traffic control, fewer firefighters on daily shifts resulting in not as many engines available to respond to fire calls, not as much park maintenance, lack of checks and balances in finance department and reduced customer service time in development and engineering services.
“This has been an ongoing course for the past 10 years, since the Great Recession, things we’ve cut out…It’s been good that we’re fiscally prudent, but there will come a point where we can’t provide the services we would like to,” Cooke said.
Cooke presented multiple charts and graphs that show how Turlock compares with other cities in the area and/or in similar size when it comes to overall budgets, sources of revenue and what funds are spent on.
Out of the 12 cities in the comparison chart, Cooke reported that Turlock has the lowest General Fund expenses per capita. Turlock is in the bottom third for spending on police services and spends the least amount of money on fire services and parks and recreation.
“We don’t spend much because we don’t have a lot to spend,” said Cooke.
While Turlock brings in quite a bit of sales tax per capita —more than Modesto, Merced, Lodi, Manteca, Clovis, Ceres and Davis — the City does not have a special source of revenue like the majority of these cities.
Eight of the cities in the comparison have a sales tax measure that goes straight to their respective General Funds, two have a utility users’ tax and four have cannabis revenue.
“I think we do need to start talking to the public about one of the options — one of the better options for long-term sustainability — is to look at some type of supplemental revenue source,” said Cooke.
Cooke said that in order to get a tax measure on the November 2020 ballot for Turlock residents to consider, the Council will need to make a decision by March on what type of tax measure or measures they would like to put forth so that it can go before the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors for approval by June.
“None of us like taxes up here. None of us is happy that this is the subject we have to dive in to. We aren’t thankful for our financial situation…I think it’s time to ask the voters, ‘what are you willing to pay for?’ If you don’t want to pay for anything else, then this is the city you’re going to get. This is the Turlock we are going to provide to you. None of us like it, the expert staff says that we can do a better job if we’re willing to work together here,” said Council member Nicole Larson.
“Fiscal responsibility not only means that we have to make the numbers on one side equal the numbers on the other side. Sometimes that means we have to be responsible with our finances and we have to ask for more,” Larson continued.
While the City will be seeking the public’s input during the budget workshops, community members who spoke at Tuesday’s Council meeting were in support of a new tax.
“I don’t like paying taxes — I want to make that very clear. But I want my streets; I want to call 9-1-1 and I don’t want to be placed on hold; I want a police officer there in less than one and half minutes; I want a first responder. I want these items. These are not just quality of life items; this is life items. I want those things and if I have to pay for it I will,” said Anna Ramirez. “I want to be proud of my town and I want my kids to be proud of my town. So, whatever it takes. I give you permission to go out there and get the word out. And if we need to do that, then we’re going to do that.”
“It seems to me that it’s obvious that we have to have a sales tax increase and we need to raise the TOT (Transient Occupancy Tax or hotel tax),” said Terri Shaver.
Following the budget presentation, the Council directed City staff to come back to the December meeting with information on hiring a professional pollster to gauge if the majority of Turlock residents would support a tax and if so, what type of tax would they prefer — sales tax, property tax, hotel tax, etc.
While all of the Council members wanted to move forward with polling on a new tax, Mayor Bublak said she wants the public to know that they’ve done everything they can to eliminate inefficiencies in City departments before going down the tax road.
“I think it’s incumbent upon us to ask our interim city manager to look into efficiencies in each department and see if there’s something else. It’s always helpful to have somebody’s insight from somewhere else…We have to show our due diligence as we progress toward a tax that we’ve exhausted everything. We cannot survive under these circumstances, but without having directed staff to look into each of these departments and how they function, I believe we’re sitting in a position of not have done everything we should do,” said Bublak.
The Mayor put an item on the agenda to evaluate cost-saving measures to increase fiscal efficiencies through outsourcing services or resource sharing efforts with neighboring jurisdictions.
The week before Tuesday’s Council meeting, Bublak, Council member Andrew Nosrati and Interim City Manager Cooke met with the Modesto Fire Chief about the neighboring municipality taking over part or all of Turlock’s fire service.
Council member Becky Arellano said she was not aware that Council members would be having those types of discussions with outside agencies.
“I felt like there were certain protocols that were not followed and we need to make these decisions with integrity and with morality and we need to make sure that our employees are not filled with anxiety and trepidation about working here,” said Arellano. “I feel like 110% they have stepped up to the plate and done everything we’ve asked them to do, including our city manager.
“We’re here to set policy. We’re not here to get in the middle of day to day operations. That’s not our job,” she continued.
Bublak advocated for exploring the possibility of outsourcing or sharing resources and said that the City needs to figure out how to cut expenses now and not just wait for new revenue sources.
The other four Council members disagreed with the Mayor’s priorities.
“I’m not against the idea of cost sharing agreements, but I don’t think this is the time we should be doing this right now. It’s distracting from our priorities as a City,” Larson said.
The community will have a chance to weigh-in on the City’s priorities and budget issues at upcoming workshops. The first meeting was held Thursday. The remaining meetings will be held at 6 p.m. Nov. 18 at Wakefield Elementary School, 6 p.m. Nov. 19 at Julien Elementary School and 6 p.m. Nov. 21 at Turlock Junior High School.
A copy of Interim City Manager Cooke’s presentation on financial stability can be found online at: https://www.cityofturlock.org/government/turlockcitycouncil/councilmeetings.asp