The Turlock City Council adopted a budget for the coming fiscal year that continues severe cutbacks in staffing implemented last year.
The City was hoping that 2020-21 would be the start of climbing out of its financial troubles, but instead Turlock now has the additional economic burden brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.
“My first budget to be presented to the Council was ripe with challenges this year. As we’ve put this document together over the course of the last couple of months, the world has continued to change on us,” said Turlock City Manager Toby Wells, who came to the City in April of this year.
Sales tax revenue has been estimated at $13 million for FY 2020-21, down from a high of $14.7 received in 2018-19 and $3 million less than what was projected for the year before COVID-19. Transient Occupancy Taxes (hotel tax) is also expected to be down 10% from last year.
While the City was allocated $2.5 million from the federally funded Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act that could be used to reimburse General Fund monies spent on the City’s pandemic response, lost revenues to City coffers have yet to be addressed at the state or federal level.
Along with a decrease in revenues, the City’s employee retirement unfunded liability continues to grow.
In order to counteract the losses in revenue, the adopted budget includes freezing 18 unfilled General Fund positions — this is on top of the 17 positions that were defunded in the 2019-20 budget.
Among those frozen positions are the Fire Chief and Police Chief.
In June 2019, the City of Turlock fired Turlock Fire Chief Robert Talloni. Division Chief of Operations Gary Carlson has been serving as Turlock’s Interim Fire Chief for the past year.
“During these extraordinary times we’re able to manage. It is not obviously going to be a long-term solution for us. When this budget goes through, we will have a total of eight positions frozen from last year and this year. We are operating on a very thin margin, so to speak. We don’t have anything that will affect operations; it effects admin. The longer you go without a department head, too, it just trickles down throughout the department for morale, for strategic planning and pushing the department forward. In the short term, it is something we can do we can continue to do. It’s more important, in my opinion, to keep as many boots on the ground as we can for those 9-1-1 calls. But in the long term, I would love it if we could get a fire chief,” said Carlson to the Council.
In March, Police Chief Nino Amirfar announced he would be retiring from the City of Turlock in October. The adopted budget calls for the Chief of Police position to remain unfilled for the remainder of the fiscal year, with the department’s two Captains taking over.
Amirfar told the Council that while the two Captains are “very capable,” it is not a long-term solution for the department.
The City Council members emphasized that the budget could be changed if more money comes to the City from state and/or federal sources or if new revenue streams become a reality.
Turlock has yet to see any revenue from the four retail cannabis dispensaries that received permits to open in the city. The Council has also been moving forward with putting a sales tax measure on the November ballot, but postponed voting on the language of the measure until July 6.
“As has been spoken to by our staff, what we’re looking at here is not a sustainable budget. It’s also one that we do not have an incredible amount of confidence in being able to project further for an entire year. In talking with community members this past week and also with the City Manager, I think that it is very appropriate for us to be looking at what we will be adopting here as a preliminary budget in anticipation of reviewing data when it is accumulated and provided for us. There is a lot of things up in the air that are going to be critical to whether or not we’re going to be able to make the changes to make this city a little bit more whole. Or whether or not we need to continue with what is what I think most citizens are disappointed in. This is not the level of service they want to see from the police, fire, from planning…,” said Vice Mayor Andrew Nosrati.
Council member Gil Esquer recognized the difficult position the City department heads and City Manager were put in to create the budget.
“It’s a place to start. We need to keep going. We need to keep focused on the goal. We can’t be kicking anything else down the road. I think most feel that’s kinda of what got us where we are in the first place. We need to do the best we can with what we have at the moment and hopefully things will get better and we will be able to change some of these negatives into positives,” said Esquer.