The Turlock City Council adopted a budget for the next fiscal year that sees a drastic tightening of the City’s financial belt and will significantly impact what services are provided to Turlock residents.
The Council tasked City Manager Bob Lawton to put forth a balanced budget for FY 2019-20, following several years of deficit spending that left the City’s reserves depleted.
“We are in a rare position here of being under some significant financial constraints. We have had a past history of paying recurring bills with nonrecurring money and that was fine as long as the savings account held out. We are scraping the bottom now this year. Rather than an expression of great aspirations for our city, this budget became a mathematical exercise or a mathematical equation,” said Lawton.
At the end of the current fiscal year, on June 30, the City’s General Fund Reserves are expected to be at approximately $2.5 million. The City’s own mandate for General Fund Reserve is $6.5 million and the Government Finance Officers’ Association recommendation for a city Turlock’s size would be $7.1 million, according to Lawton.
“We have increasing revenues, but not at a pace sufficient to match increasing costs of doing business. We have a structural deficit here in the city of approximately going into FY 2019-20 of about $4.1 million. The initial request for budget submissions by departments to advise this office the amount to do their job and carry out their functions in a manner they deem professionally responsible and desirable would have created a $4.4 million deficit,” said Lawton.
“We were tasked with presenting for Council’s consideration a budget that would be balanced for FY ‘19-’20 and that we have done.”
While the adopted budget — approved Tuesday with a 5-0 vote — does not lay off any employees, it does defund 16 currently vacant or soon to be vacant positions and calls for cuts in public safety overtime budgets that will see fewer police officers and firefighters on duty on a weekly basis.
Due to a cut in overtime funding and not filling firefighter vacancies, Fire Chief Robert Talloni said that there will be “brown outs” at the City’s fire stations. During a brown out, one of the City’s four fire stations will not be staffed for a certain period of time.
Talloni said there will be planned brown outs 33 percent of the time with actual number approaching 50 percent with vacations, jury duty, bereavement, sick time, etc.
“Brown outs will occur whenever daily staffing falls below than 13. This can be done in a few different ways, which I will vet out operationally. As chief of the department, I will consider staffing that will provide the best possible coverage with the available resources,” said Talloni.
“Impacts of browning out include slower response times…a greater reliance on mutual aid, diminished customer service as staffing levels decrease and a possible change in our ISO ratings [a Public Protection Classification that indicates how well-protected a community is by the fire department],” he continued.
Other Fire programs will also be affected. Holding vacant the part-time assistant in Neighborhood Services is expected to have a large impact on customer service for the public, according to Talloni.
“Neighborhood Services addresses hot-button topics, such as homeless issues, city blight, shopping carts and graffiti. The monthly average of phone calls from January through May were 476,” he said.
The police department budget will see the defunding of one officer position, the postponement of hiring of two other officers and the defunding of three dispatchers, as well as other staffing impacts with the significant reduction in overtime funds.
Police Chief Nino Amirfar asked the City Council to reconsider the reduction of overtime funds — to no avail.
“When a city cannot maintain its crime rates or continue to lower its crime rates or provide programs for law enforcement to deal with to be proactive rather than reactive, that’s going to impact your businesses. No one wants to come to a city that can’t provide for the safety of its customers,” said Amirfar.
Reductions to overtime expenses will see the elimination of many programs provided by the police department including: Monte Vista Crossings holiday patrols, downtown holiday patrols, Blue Santa, Police Department Open House, Every 15 Minutes, National Night Out, Business Watch, Rape Aggression Defense classes, Neighborhood Watch and School Watch.
The budget also sees the elimination of a Maintenance Worker I and a Maintenance Worker II position from Parks. Those workers would be transferred to Streets and be funded under SB1 instead of General Fund dollars. The elimination of the two Parks maintenance positions will leave 10 full-time workers to maintain 187 acres of park space.
This reduction in Parks staff will see impacts on graffiti removal, reduced trash removal frequency and irrigation repairs could be delayed resulting in brown spots in grass areas. Instead of every week, City parks will be mowed either every two or three weeks.
Planning and Engineering would both be eliminating part-time staff as well.
Many customer service offices at City departments now have limited hours due to staffing cuts. Parks and Recreation, Planning and Police Records offices are now only open from noon to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Following presentations on the budget cuts, members of City employee unions spoke about the need for a steady revenue source to fund needed services.
“We can’t do what we do without overtime. The City Manager spoke at length about us doing more for less for over a decade and it’s unattainable. We have to have some way of providing a level of comfort to our community and I don’t know any other way to do that than overtime because we’re certainly not going to recruit or retain anyone,” said Brandon Bertram of the Turlock Associated Police Offers Association.
“TAPO is ready to do whatever is necessary to help you find revenue resources — long-term fixed revenue resources that aren’t going to be Christmas in July, marijuana sales or whatever else is out there. We need a fixed tax base to deal with this budget, whether it’s a utility tax or increasing business licensing fees or whatever. For goodness sakes, will you please ask for our help and let us get started on this. We have the community’s support and we will attain that goal, but the time is running out,” he continued.
Juan Vargas, vice president of the Turlock City Employees Association, echoed Bertram’s call for a steady revenue source.
“I know the tax word is a three-letter word that a lot of us don’t like to hear but unfortunately, it’s going to be our only long-term solution. Some of these other funding sources could be hit or miss, but if we can get a tax base, we can improve all aspects of the city. It’s not just going to help PD and fire, it’s going to help your parks, it’s going to help your municipal services,” he said.
While city employees — and Council member Nicole Larson — advocated for the Council to consider increasing taxes or creating a new tax to help pay for City services, Mayor Amy Bublak repeated her call for other ways to find additional revenue sources.
“Not to say ‘I told you so’ but I sat here over a year ago and I cautioned that we had financial problems and that we needed to start taking notice and we needed to have a meeting and create the revenue that I know we didn’t have. So, it’s not for lack of trying, now I’m in a position where I can actually make that happen. I’m worried that we’re talking about…the only way we’re going to make it is to add to taxes. Yes, that is a bad word to me. But we haven’t gained the public’s trust. Here’s the first step right here. We have to tell the public we can balance their budget. We can use their money to do the right thing and to work forward from that. There’s no way you’re going to get a tax passed when you’re telling the public you’re going to continue to deficit spend,” said Bublak.