Tap city reserves to mend budget?
■ Council explores options, seeks more data
By Donna Beth Weilenman
Benicia City Council agreed Tuesday, in some cases reluctantly, to use its reserves to help shore up anticipated budgetary shortfalls in the next five years.
It told city staff to make its five-year plan, as well as plans for the 2013-14 budget, along a middle-road approach.
That approach is neither an optimistic — anticipating a smooth economic recovery — nor a pessimistic track that expects the economy to remain flat.
But Council members expressed reluctance to raise taxes and fees.
Vice Mayor Tom Campbell suggested such measures would address the city’s shortfalls only in the long term, because they would need to be approved in a referendum during a city election.
He and others expressed doubts the measures would be prepared in time for this year’s election in November.
Councilmember Alan Schwartzman recommended city elections be changed to even years, and that Benicia should encourage Solano County and its other cities to do the same to save money.
The more decisions voters make at the same time, the less it costs each governmental agency to foot the bill for the election, Schwartzman explained.
Urging the city to examine “all the nooks and crannies” to find ways to save money, he suggested looking at the city’s boards and commissions to see if revising their number or makeup might reduce the staff time spent with the advisory panels.
He suggested reviewing city services and determining which are favored by citizens, and he said the city needs to encourage economic development to spur sales tax and other growth-driven revenues.
Schwartzman also asked that those who oppose the conversion of several billboards on Interstate 680 to light-emitting diode, multi-imaging types remember the signs would bring income to Benicia and promote the city, rather than placing additional financial burdens on residents.
Councilmember Mark Hughes was reluctant to agree with spending the city’s reserves, but conceded, “That’s why they’re there.”
He also didn’t want to raise taxes, but said he wanted to know what other cities are charging for taxes and fees.
“I’d like to see a listing of city services and costs,” he said. “I need to make an informed decision.”
He also wanted more details on what Benicia spends on outside organizations, including those that receive city grants through the Human Services Board and the Arts and Culture Commission.
Councilmember Christina Strawbridge said she was optimistic about Benicia’s recovery, saying First Street merchants are experiencing improved sales, including at her own store.
She urged investing in economic development. “It’s our savior,” she said, and the payoff would be increased revenues from new and expanded businesses.
She also recommended the city examine its own under-used or vacant properties, including the Commanding Officer’s Quarters, saying they are languishing.
Campbell proposed a delay in paying off the $609,000 it will take to close the city’s old transit fund.
“I don’t care what it does to our credit rating…. For a short time we had the best rating. We’re one notch down,” he said.
“We don’t generate the money to make a dent in this,” he said, urging the city to spend its reserves and suggesting City Manager Brad Kilger should recommend where to make cuts.
“Not to be bleak, but that’s where it is with the numbers,” Campbell said.
Mayor Elizabeth Patterson said “it would be prudent” to spend the city’s reserves. But she said the money should be spent on targeted endeavors to right the budget that was anticipated to end the fiscal year June 30 in balance, until it was thrown off-kilter last fall when Solano County advised that property tax revenues would be about $800,000 lower than expected.
On top of that news received last fall, the city has experienced a decline in utility user tax revenues and some other revenues. The combination has put the city about $1 million in the hole.
Kilger and Finance Director Karan Reid reminded the Council that city employees have accepted pay cuts and made other concessions, that departments have been reorganized, that some employee positions have been eliminated and that vacant positions have been frozen.
Some significant purchases and expenditures have been postponed as well.
Mary Frances Kelly-Poh encouraged the Council to spend reserves, telling how she has had to advise the elderly who had saved all their lives that they should spend some of those savings during an emergency.
But she asked the Council to be cautious about curtailing its support of some outside organizations, especially those getting grants from the Human Services Board to aid the city’s less fortunate residents.
Constance Beutel urged the city to praise employees who find ways to help Benicia cope with the structural deficit.
She recommended the city compete for $1.3 million in Valero-Good Neighbor Steering Committee funds with a project that would save water.
But she also addressed economic development, saying the Benicia Industrial Park needed broadband service.
She suggested the city hire a business analyst to examine is operations, the formation of a “green” team to endorse sustainable city operations, the expanded use of renewable-source energy and the seeking of grants to pay for city projects.
Arts Benicia Executive Director Larnie Fox reminded the Council that if it trimmed what it considered a small grant, the nonprofit counting on that money could be devastated.
Finance Committee Chair Dennis Lowry said he hoped more older residents would decline seeking the “senior discount” for water service, saying he believed most did not realize the discount formerly was subsidized by their neighbors. After a court ruling banned such arrangements, the Council decided to underwrite discounts for low-income older residents, and temporarily pay for other elderly discounts until it is phased out in five years.
Hughes told the audience that the Council may seek additional numbers to consider as they address the city’s continuing budget problems. While it didn’t mean the Council was intending to make specific cuts, he said, “we need to make informed decisions. We need to see the information.”
“This is just the beginning,” Kilger said. “You have provided us with excellent guidance.”
“This is really hard work,” Patterson said. “We’re going to work together to solve these problems.”