Council: Public asked to weigh in on upcoming 3-year budget

May 31, 2013
Santa Paula City Council

Where should the city spend in coming years?

Hire police officers to fill the gaps in the force, bring on more building and safety inspectors for code enforcement, or retain service workers to clean and brighten city parks and sidewalks? The community is being encouraged to take part in the budget process after a City Councilman brought up the issue at the May 20 meeting.

During a long discussion on city finances and a report on the assessment of city needs in the 2013 fiscal year, Councilman Martin Hernandez noted the report “looks to be a useful tool,” but one that needs “additional planning and management tools.” The report by city financial consultant Tom Gardner noted that needs as determined by department heads centering on personnel, equipment, facility, vehicles and training would cost about $8.3 million through 2016-2017, a period during which it is estimated the city would have about $3.5 million to spend on such needs.

At the May 20 council meeting, Councilman Hernandez said it’s time to bring in others to consider city spending. Said Hernandez, “I was brought here by the voters of Santa Paula to do their biding and be their voice” in identifying needs and setting priorities, as well as to ensure staff requirements including those pertaining to health and safety, “which sometimes requires training.”

Hernandez noted he had asked in the past that a “community dialogue” be opened regarding the upcoming three-year budget. The upcoming budget will be the second to be crafted to cover a three-year period, rather than the annual budgets the city operated under until 2010. 

Hernandez said the council should have a goal and priority setting session “with some input from the community; help guide me intellectually to put it all in the pot and make the best meal for the community.” 

Mayor Ralph Fernandez agreed, noting that with critical needs it is up to the council “to sit around a round table as we’ve done in the past” to prioritize spending. 

After general discussion Councilman Bob Gonzales said he “appreciates the process and working with staff” to determine needs, but “we’ve been through the process before and we can’t have it all.” Gonzales said his objections to Hernandez’s suggestion of public input on the budget included public perception and priorities such as a suggested $5,000 buy in to the Heritage Valley Tourism Bureau that he described as a “feel good” but necessary expenditure.

“My fear is we’ll have a lot of people come in” and prioritize needs that could exclude seemingly frivolous expenditures that actually would benefit the city. Said Gonzales, “There’s only so much money we have to figure out how to spend.”

Hernandez said such a meeting would not “give false expectations or hopes; it’s not for feel good” expenditures, but rather to “identify needs and their importance,” such as police and water. Such input, said Hernandez, would just be another tool to help the council decide where priority should be given.

City Manager Jaime Fontes said it is expected the economy will continue to improve in coming years. He suggested “maybe in a year or two bring the public in” when finances are more stable. “But a year like this,” said Fontes, “it would be very tough; we would have to say” to the community that most of their suggestions could not be considered.

Later in the discussion Hernandez persisted: “It’s simple for me... I don’t think the public needs to wait two to three years to come in and say what their desires are.... It is their money,” and Hernandez said the community realizes the council is “tasked to make the tough decisions” and can be educated if need be on spending constraints. 

Gonzales seconded Hernandez’s motion with misgivings: “I too believe the public should know everything that goes on with the council.... I have nothing to hide, but I think the community will feel misled” by spending decisions that often rely on opposing factors.

Councilman Jim Tovias disagreed: “I feel uncomfortable” with public input that, although important, “like Santa Claus could create false hopes” when it comes to council spending decisions. Tovias said he feared the public would be disappointed if their suggestions were not followed and they could think the council had wasted their time. “I just don’t want to set up any false expectations” on the part of the public, said Tovias.

Any disappointment, said Hernandez, would be exceeded by the new found trust of the community. 

“I don’t have a problem with community involvement, I would be very much in favor of that,” said Fernandez.

Fontes said if the council were to engage in such an effort, “We would have to do it right,” with probably two sessions including “item by item” presentations by department heads. “Budget 101,” said Fontes, could be followed by a second meeting. 

Fernandez noted the short timeframe faced by the council, which must adopt the budget by the end of June; and Hernandez again noted he had made the request for such sessions in the past. The council agreed the budget study would be on the agenda for the regularly scheduled June 3 meeting, and a special meeting would be called for June 10 to continue budget discussions.

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