June 3, 2005

National City Spotlight:

Budget Gap Challenges Council

By Ted Godshalk

In April the new City Manager for National City, Chris Zapata, characterized last year’s city budget as one with “significant money challenges.” Last year’s $3 million gap, caused by increased costs and by investment losses in the State Retirement fund known as PERS, was covered by dipping into city reserves and borrowing $900,000 from the State’s Vehicle Tax fund. For this year’s budget, Zapata’s message to the elected ones is that they have a choice to maintain, increase, or reduce services in National City. Each choice comes with deep responsibilities.

To his credit, Zapata’s budget setting method is refreshingly out in the open. The discussions are scheduled as part of the regular council meetings instead of being held in the early morning hours. In fact, the Zapata method allows for the first public glimpse into the process of setting priorities. As part of this process, all city departments have presented a “wish list” for this year’s budget. Doing the city’s business in front of the public clears the way for an open discussion of the issues and shines a light on the Mayor and Council’s decision-making. By listening carefully, you can often hear a subtext (some say an agenda) that informs the person’s stated decision.

For 2005-06, the projected income of $29 million is out of balance with the continuing expenditures of $35.6 million. To just maintain current services, National City requires $6 million in new revenue. Consider the departments’ wish lists and you add in another $3 million. Capital Improvement Projects like street repair and sewer maintenance tacks on almost $2 million more. This $11 million shortfall makes last year’s $3 million look puny.

In good times (and these aren’t so terrible when compared to deep recessions), government, businesses, and nonprofit groups all grow. Many institutions expand to reach a new market, new customers. New money available to various governmental departments enables them to create new programs to meet a perceived need. But perhaps in some cases the perceived need is just an excuse to spend the new money. This “program inflation,” results in two important things. First, the task of chasing more new money is added to the work force’s responsibilities. And secondly, the customers get used to the availability of the new services. Later when cuts are threatened, it is natural that complaints (sometimes from the customers and sometimes from the staff) result. No one ever seems to remember the original level of service. They just want more: more programs, more money, and more workplace security.

Maintaining most of the current services is the appropriate course of action. We can all live with a little less now to save what is dear and this isn’t so difficult, nor painful, if planned correctly. The city can meet the needs of the residents without adding new police substations at Plaza Bonita and near Wal-Mart, without going deep into debt with more bonds, and without tapping reserves again. Instead, new development must not get a free ride when it comes to infrastructure improvements and the CDC can increase its passing of tax funds to the City. Hopefully no city employees need be laid off at this time because there is certainly much work to do in this period of growth. It is only by having a clear sense of the original levels of service that city leaders and the public can make informed decisions about this budget. The temptation to create new programs, adding more fuel to the inflationary fires, must be resisted.

When Zapata presented the three budget options to the Council and Mayor, there were some interesting comments from the podium. Only Luis Natividad cited a specific course of action when he commented, “If you say you want to cut the police, you’re [seen as] un-American. I think we need to look closer at the police budget.” Fiscal responsibility is not un-American. We need specifics today, not platitudes and grandstanding.

Pressure to raise money in a climate like this can adversely affect us all. Property sold off to developers, increased leniency with permits for alcohol sales as we have seen, and the courting of big box stores all result in social costs and quality of life impacts. Balancing this year’s budget should not ding us financially in the future nor ruin our community today.

Ted Godshalk can be reached at paradisecreek@mac.com

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