The City of Turlock is facing a severe financial crisis. All of us – taxpayers, City employees and labor unions, civic groups, business owners, City leadership – will have to work closely together to reverse a recent pattern of overspending by City government.
Among the reasons for the City’s financial crunch is the less-than-transparent spending down of our general fund reserves in recent budget years. But now is not the time for recrimination. Instead, we must start immediately to develop a plan and commitment so that this financial crisis will never happen again.
As Mayor, I believe your City Council understands that we must develop better budget discipline. The City Council realizes that business as usual will not allow us to develop a budget that is financially sustainable for the long term. City reserve funds have been used to balance the budget in recent years. This structural deficit spending would empty what is left of our reserve fund in less than two years.
To achieve a sustainable and structurally balanced budget for the long term, we must change how City Hall does business.
First, we must provide much greater openness in budget matters. Second, we must seek and obtain more input from outside City Hall on how your tax dollars are spent. Third, we should institute a Citizens Advisory Committee whose members have the skills necessary to assist the City Manager and our staff in developing an understandable and balanced budget that maximizes cost-savings and preserves your precious financial resources entrusted to City government. Finally, we must make tough choices about spending and revenue.
To achieve a City budget that is sustainable over many years, acceptable choices are limited: reduce spending, increase revenue (without increasing taxes) or a combination of both.
For example, to eliminate chronic deficit spending, cuts in City departments across the board would be necessary. Accordingly, the City Council directed the City Manager to begin the 2019-2020 budget process by meeting with all stakeholders to develop a 2019-20 budget that eliminates deficit spending but maintains essential services.
First, we have asked department directors and City employees to review current practices to reduce expenditures.
Second, we have eliminated discretionary spending such as travel reimbursement for elected officials and unnecessary staff travel.
Third, through a competitive bid process, we have retained a new law firm that should reduce budgeted legal expenses by over $200,000 annually.
When elected officials talk about raising revenue, most think first about raising taxes. This isn’t my approach. In my 10 years of elected public service, I have not supported any tax increases. Even when I came under pressure to endorse the transportation sales tax — Measure L — I was the only elected official in Stanislaus County not to do so.
My efforts to raise revenue without raising taxes should focus on economic development and reclaiming a fairer share of property taxes paid by City taxpayers. For example, whenever I can, I work with business leaders, entrepreneurs and local, state and federal elected officials from both sides of the aisle to bring new jobs and businesses to Turlock.
In addition, I have teamed up with the Mayors of our eight other cities to begin a dialogue with our county government about a more reasonable sharing of property taxes between the county and the cities. Most of you would be shocked by how little of the property taxes many pay in our City actually ends up with the City. The Mayors believe that we should implement a more equitable tax sharing solution that will not unduly burden county government but will help our city government provide the essential city services expected by our citizens.
I believe your City Council is committed to budget transparency and honesty. Do we have the courage to shoulder any blame that comes our way when others simply refused to do so? I believe so. But your City Council members will need your input and support to make difficult and important decisions that can lead to a financially sustainable budget.
Balancing our budget while maintaining essential City services will not be easy. However, by working with you, your City Council can develop a financial plan that keeps Turlock the great City that it is.