Show Me The Money! City Budget Creates Challenges
City budget issues, including controversial salary increases for staff, will be approved or denied by city council at regular meeting, sometime in September.
City budget issues, including controversial salary increases for staff, will be approved or denied by city council at regular meeting, sometime in September.

We all know it takes money, lots of it these days, to run a country, a state, a business, a household, or a city, even one as small as Fillmore is. On a personal level, most of us understand that the only way to successfully survive and grow within one’s financial means, is to set a realistic budget and stick to it. A budget is a two-pronged battle that includes setting strict guidelines that accurately address anticipated income versus necessary obligations, and having the fortitude to live by them without dipping into savings.

City officials, like the head of a family, are the custodians of the wealth and health of their community. They make decisions that can affect thousands of lives for decades to come. One of their most important duties is to create a workable annual budget that accurately reflects available funds gathered from a great number of sources, and administer it wisely, very wisely! This is not an easy task, especially considering the numerous interests and influences involved.

This year, Fillmore’s budget issues created more of a challenge than in previous economically healthier years. Finance Director, Barbara Smith advises that available dollars are shrinking, in part due to the State budget crisis. The loss of State funding incorporates the expiration and non-renewal of a three year $100,000 COPS Grant, and loss of $89,000 in revenues from the ½ cent Sales Tax, Prop. 172. Those losses affect the City’s ability to continue the current level of public safety assets, most specifically, the Motor Officer, a second Gang Officer, the School Resource Officer and a 5% increase in cost of the City’s contract with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department. It is not yet clear how much additional State funding will be lost, if Governor Schwarzenegger takes the Redevelopment Property Tax as well.

On the Federal level, there have been repeated reductions over the years in Community Development Block Grant money. In the past, the City distributed these funds over several projects and services including subsidizing the Boys and Girls Club, Veterans Memorial District building repairs, and other local services. In total, $421,500 (including an annual $142,500 short-term loan to the Redevelopment Agency) will be withdrawn from the Reserve General Purpose Fund to support the above projects. Some Redevelopment monies will be utilized as well.

To complicate matters, as reported in the Ventura County Star, complaints from the City of Livermore and possibly the City of Industry, incurred an investigation by the State Board of Equalization into practices and agreements between Virginia based Owens and Minor (a medical equipment giant, with a sales office located downtown), MTS Consulting, and the City of Fillmore. The Board is currently withholding sales tax reimbursements to Fillmore, involving clients brought forward by MTS Consulting, and a second firm, Inspired Development, until the matter is finally settled.

A contentious issue in these troubled times, and well documented in this newspaper, were pay raises for all City personnel, effective July 1, 2008. According to City Manager, Tom Ristau, the City employs twenty-two full-time Union workers, (Finance, Facilities and Public Works) under a three-year non-negotiable contract in force until June 2010. Salaries range from $62,250 to $91,428 including enhanced benefits and cafeteria allowances (election of taxable cash payments up to $7,800 in lieu of non-taxable additional health benefits for family members), an overall increase of $82,031 or 5.5%.

Mid-Level Management includes fourteen full-time non-union employees (Finance, Planning/Bldg. Safety, Fire, Administrative, Public Works). Salaries range from $100,248 to $147,475 including enhanced benefits and cafeteria allowances up to $7,800 an overall increase of $85,475 or 6.53%.

Upper-Level Management includes six full-time non-union employees (City Mgr., Asst. City Mgr./Finance Director, Deputy City Mgr., Public Works Director, Community Development Director, Fire Chief). Salaries range from $134,733 to $203,994 including enhanced benefits and cafeteria allowances up to $7,800 an overall increase of $44,862 or 4.68%.

Amongst the three groups, twelve employees received merit/step raises ranging from 3% to 10%. The total budgeted amount for all salaries for fiscal year 08-09 with benefits and cafeteria allowances is $3,974,932, an overall increase from 07-08 of $212,368 or 5.64%.

Although the City Manager is responsible for recommending yearly individual and merit/step raises, the City Council has the discretion to deny all salary increases, excepting mandatory Union negotiated raises.

With little discussion, the preliminary 08-09 budget was passed by a two to one vote on June 24, going into effect on July 1, 2008. Mayor Steve Conaway and Councilmember Scott Lee were in favor, and Councilmember Patti Walker voted against, citing discomfort with management and mid-management raises. It is her opinion that in consideration of several outstanding issues, including the cost of completion for specific projects, it was in the community’s best interest to hold off temporarily on those specific raises. Lee favored mid-management and management raises, arguing the need to keep salaries competitive to retain the best people, and that most have been employees of the City for several years, thus putting them at the top of their pay scales. However, he questioned the trend of dipping into the Reserve General Purpose Fund to make up shortfalls. Mayor Conaway and Councilmember Cecilia Cuevas were comfortable with the budget. Cuevas left the meeting before the vote and Councilmember Laurie Hernandez was on extended leave of absence.

The all encompassing 08-09 Fiscal Budget is $117,773,354, ($38,412,809 or 24.6% less than the previous). The reductions are due in part to reduced development and capital expenditures. Expenditures of $45.7 million are planned for capital projects. The City projects revenues of $28.4 million (as reported in the V.C. Star 6/25/08, but unable to confirm at the City level before publication).

Although some conflicting data was previously reported in another publication, Ristau has confirmed that the total Operating Budget for 08-09 is $19.9 million and includes expenses for a great number of departments. The General Fund Operating Budget is $7,365,977. The Reserve General Purpose Fund has $2,095,072 (28.4% of the recommend 40% of the General Fund Operating Budget).

There are many problems facing Fillmore today. Included are: sewer plant, storm water, and brine discharge issues and their related costs to the public; FEMA, business park and residential flood plain problems; growth disputes; rising costs and diminishing revenues; poor housing market; Board of Equalization investigations; loss of businesses and jobs; loss of State and Federal grants and subsidies; Senior Center, Veterans Memorial District and Fire Chief difficulties. On a personal level, many in Fillmore, a city on the lower rungs of the economic scale of Ventura County, are currently forced to sacrifice even necessities.

The question is; what would you do if you were a City leader, charged with guiding your town through difficult times? The Fillmore Gazette welcomes your opinions and ideas before the Council’s final vote on the 08-09 Budget, scheduled for the very near future.