The city council voted unanimously Wednesday night to close the fire station in the Pinole Valley, to leave a vacant police officer position frozen and to eliminate subsidies for recreation programs. The vote retained money to operate the swim center for the summer and for its cable TV station.
The actions are the first in in a series of steps to save about $1.5 million in general fund spending. The fire station will close July 1 and the police officer job could be reconsidered later this year. Closure of the fire station will save about $1.5 million per year, but a firefighter will be added to each of three daily shifts at the downtown fire station at a cost of $500,000 per year. It is possible that the Valley station could be reopened if economic conditions improve in future years.
Council member Debbie Long tried to tie the "brownout" of the valley fire station to a provision that city employees agree to a a 15 percent cut in compensation among all city departments, but she had no support. Council member Pete Murray said that level of reduction couldn't be assumed because of service mandates that certain departments are legally obligated to provide. City Manager Belinda Espinosa agreed, saying that Long's approach was not feasible, in part because salary and benefit concessions must be negotiated and couldn't be arrived at arbitrarily.
Although the swim center and cable TV operations avoided immediate cuts, the council voted to eliminate subsidies to both for the 2012-2013 fiscal year. The swim center could remain open if it could form a nonprofit group and raise its own funds. The TV station also will lose its $48,000 subsidy by 2012.
"We can't wish our way out of this," Murray said. "It's something very difficult to deal with but we have to do it. We've all got to understand it's a sacrifice and there's no way out."
Outstanding uncertainties blur the budget picture for the next two fiscal years. One is how negotiations with city labor unions will progress and the other is the state's pending decision to erase city redevelopment agencies. New labor contracts appear likely to include salary reductions, and Espinosa said layoffs will come before the end of the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.
The next budget challenge for the city will be figuring out how to replace about $2 million in funds now collected through its redevelopment agency. Pending state legislation would eliminate such agencies all over California. Virtually all redevelopment funds will be redistributed to schools, Medicare and courts this year as a one-time infusion. Pinole would recoup about $740,000 of redevelopment money beginning fiscal year 2012-13. That might allow the city to restore cuts made Wednesday. The state will give the city $250,000 a year to close down redevelopment operations.
With the loss of redevelopment money, Espinosa told the council she would start from "ground zero" to build new budgets. The approach will fund police and fire departments at a level to be determined. Then city staff will prioritize other staff requirements down to clerical help until available general funds are exhausted.
"I already know there will be layoffs before July 1," she said, estimating that it will take about 30 days to bring back a new budget strategy. "But I want a chance to restructure the plan and see how I can try to make it work. I'm going to find the $4 million, one way or the other, whether it's a combination of layoffs or making some positions part time, eliminating positions and recreating something that we really need to have. If we were done with (labor) negotiations right now I could plug that number in. But we're not."
Some council members acknowledged that a conversation with the community is needed to determine the level of services that it desires, balanced by how much people are willing to pay in taxes and fees.
"I see the need to make changes," Long said. "I see the need to take this out to the public if they don't like the changes, how we can restore. It's going to take pubic support, and maybe that's what the state's looking at is for us to be sustainable without them helping us out."
Murray noted that after next fiscal year a utility user tax, which generates about $2 million per year, is due to expire. That would be another hit to the city budget unless voters approve to extend the life of the tax. In November, 2010 voters rejected a ballot measure to extend the tax.