BY LIONEL EMDE
At the third and final budget study session May 28, Pacifica City Council looked at a further $2.24 million in budget cuts proposed by staff on top of the $1.2 million in cuts on the table at the May 6, 2009 study session.
A newly revealed hole blown in the budget calculations was the announcement by City Manager Steve Rhodes that Coastside Scavenger (CS) is "six or seven months in arrears" in payment of its franchise fee, causing a $738,000 shortfall. In reaction to this, the city will use a $250,000 line of credit that CS established as part of a settlement with the city last year, temporarily reducing the shortfall of money to the city. This may explain why CS has not come forward with a new rate increase proposal this year.
Another large budget problem is the State of California's proposed "borrowing" of property tax revenues that normally would flow to cities. In Pacifica’s case, the projected revenue reduction is $964,058. Council member Jim Vreeland, reacting in obvious anger at the state’s move, said the line item should be renamed "State Ripoff of Property Taxes."
Staff also proposed cuts totaling $863,095 in staff compensation, which will require going back to the city’s 10 bargaining units for negotiation and a vote of each unit's members. Included in these proposed cuts are a one-week furlough for all employees except Public Safety workers; and salary increase freezes, merit increase freezes, and "vacation sellbacks" ("selling back" to the employer unused vacation time for cash over and above regular salary). In a number of City of Pacifica departments, staffers are voluntarily giving up vacation sellbacks as part of the second round of budget cuts, and they total another $46,424 in reductions.
If all cuts proposed ($3.468 million) are implemented, and projections do not change, staff calculates that the city reserve will be $3.886 million at the end of the process.
Staff had not proposed any cuts in the newly expanded benefits for the council, yet it was the subject of intense discussion among council members. Both Jim Vreeland and Pete DeJarnatt supported a 10 percent reduction in council member salaries, which would save $4,200 per year.
But council member Mary Ann Nihart brought up the item that is the fastest-rising expense to the city and that, as part of the management unit’s contract, is being extended to the council— the "cafeteria" health plan. She said, "I do have a problem with the cafeteria plan, I think as a policy decision, we have to...talk about this...For us (the council) to receive benefits that are attached to...the same union as the management contract is difficult. I think we need to look at that as a policy. I don’t begrudge anybody any health care, I don’t begrudge anybody getting the equivalent of health care, but in general, when we’re talking about a cut, I think we have to look at the benefits...Salary is a minuscule issue, the benefits are a very important, big issue...We need to separate as a council from those (labor) contracts."
Some council members seemed unaware of the contents of the new health care benefit and its relationship to the management group contract. Nihart asked staff for more information on increases in council benefit amounts. It appears that the council will revisit this issue for resolution before the budget is finalized.
One proposed cut in the police budget that met with unanimous disapproval from the council was elimination of one police officer’s position. The position is one soon to become vacant, and Nihart questioned Police Chief Jim Saunders about the effect of more overtime on officers' performance. Saunders said that overtime is a normal occurrence already with existing staff. It seemed likely that the $131,000 position will not be cut from the budget.
Perhaps the most moving moment of the long and difficult meeting was the quiet testimony of Resource Center Director Pat Paik in support of continued city funding of the agency:
"...I’m here to advocate for the poor in this budget. We serve the people of Pacifica...I’d like to suggest a few unintended consequences of your following that advice (to eliminate funding the center)...by not funding us anything, you impair our ability with other funders...they want to know what the city has put forward. When we were part of the city (government), our budget was double what it is now ($83,000). That was five years ago and we’ve never gotten a COLA (cost-of-living adjustment), it’s been $83,000, straight..."
"We’re in an economic tsunami. Without this funding, the Resource Center cannot operate. We would be open two days a week and that ain’t gonna cut it. We’ve been helping citizens in record numbers this year and we helped them in record numbers last year. Emergency services, that would be food, shelter, diapers, utility, transportation, motel, that’s up 119 percent over the prior year. Food help alone is up 48 percent over last year. Referrals to other agencies were up 80 percent over last year...That means, when people don’t know where to go, they get laid off, they need to get unemployment, but they can’t get an answer when they call, they call us."
"We start the first step in food stamps. The wait for people to get food stamps, even if they are eligible, is three months. Unemployment has a two-month backlog. So, I’m talking about people who are newly unemployed, people who’ve never had to file for unemployment before...We have people in our community who’ve been laid off from other city jobs, in other cities. We have people who’ve been working for 10, 12, 20 years, they go to work one day, and the door’s closed. They peek in, and see that the building is empty because over the weekend, the out-of-state business closed and moved away. They’re going to have trouble even proving their case for unemployment."
"These are all Pacifica residents...I wanted to give you a little tiny picture of some of the things that are going on. So if you can give us funding, we leverage that support. Every dollar you’ve given us has been matched in grants by three dollars from other sources...not to mention that when we sit down to talk to people who are hungry, who are about to lose their house, who can’t pay their rent, and we are able to help them, we’ve got a safer city and we’ve got a healthier city, and I say, 'If we’re not here, you’d better give the chief two or three policemen back, because we are in very difficult times.'"
The council’s response was unanimous support of funding for both the Resource Center and the library. The farmers market also seems to have support; it was suggested that a reduction in council salaries could be used to fund it.
The schedule for final budget determination is a completion of decisions by June 10, followed by publication of the document on June 15. The 2009-2010 budget will be adopted at the June 22 council meeting.
(Our reporter had to leave the meeting at the start of the public-comment period. Riptide encourages your participation here. Those who spoke at the meeting or who wish to react to this story, please scroll down, click Comments, and follow the directions for submitting an opinion. Thanks.)