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Saturday, November 17 , 2018, 4:54 pm | Fair with Haze 64º

 
 
 
 

Ron Fink: Budget Challenges Cause Lompoc Leaders to Punt

Cities across the United States were organized (incorporated) to serve the needs of the people. During the formative era, folks wanted more to say in how their needs were met.

Lompoc was incorporated on Aug. 13, 1888, three years after the Fire Department was first organized. In 1891, money was allocated to build a combined City Hall and Fire Department.

As the city grew, the public wanted more services from their government.

They asked for and got a Police Department, safe water supplies and a better way of disposing of sewage; paved streets and sidewalks; street lighting; and parks and recreation programs.

City leaders decided to provide all utility services for the residents. Not all cities do this, but the people of Lompoc wanted local control of their utility.

All this costs money and today several hundred employees are needed to maintain public facilities and provide services the public wants.

Back in the day, public employees weren’t paid well; serving the public was a duty and the rewards were few. All that changed in 1932 when the government employees’ pension system was established.

Unfortunately, this system has been mismanaged by a board of directors, dominated by union leaders and politicians, who use the fund to make political statements rather than earn sufficient returns to fund the system.

State and local taxpayer organizations have been warning for years that the system would eventually collapse under its own weight if it wasn’t reformed. Politicians refused to listen, so the bill is now due and the impact will be huge.

Lompoc, like every other community that has been incorporated for more than 30 years, is faced with making some tough choices.

At the request of City Manager Patrick Wiemiller, former Mayor Frances Romero of Guadalupe seemed to change the mood of the council as she spoke to them on June 8, saying she had faced similar circumstances a couple of years ago.

She sympathized with them, saying their decisions wouldn’t be easy and they should put their personal feelings aside and do what is best for the community — in this case, allow voters to ponder the situation and vote for or against tax increases.

Romero said she found when city management was honest with its residents and let them know what they stood to lose if tax increases weren’t approved, that in her city they supported them overwhelmingly even though Guadalupe is, according to the U.S. Census, the poorest community in both San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.

She also said Guadalupe found special and restricted funds could not be used to fund General Fund needs.

An analogous situation exists in Lompoc as enterprise funds (fees for a specific service) are being tapped to bolster the General Fund without justification.

Are these transfers even legal?  That question was asked months ago and neither the council or the public ever got an answer.

Following Romero's comments, the confrontational rhetoric of past meetings was replaced with more sober deliberation by the council.

At the end of the June 8 meeting, seeing that they faced challenges and wouldn’t meet the June 30 deadline, Council Member Victor Vega made a logical motion to extend hearings until Aug. 31 and continue using the current budget.

The motion passed 5-0, to keep the doors of City Hall open.

Subsequent motions to restart discussions concerning three tax measures seemed to put them back where they started weeks ago.

I would submit that council members need to know the answers to some critical questions before they approve a budget:

How did the assumptions in the last two budget cycles work out? Was income close to the projections? Did expenses equal budget estimates?

Is it wise to defer capital improvements such as replacement of aged police and fire vehicles; overhaul of city parks and repair/expansion of Police and Fire department facilities for the next budget cycle and potentially for the next 20 years?

Would it be wise to cut public safety budgets when police have investigated eight shootings in the last three months? Should fees for the use of recreational venues be adjusted to recover at least 75 percent of their operating costs?

And, determining whether the transfers from the enterprise funds to “bolster the General Fund” are even legal.

In the coming months, you will be presented with some choices and a lot of misinformation; I urge you the pay close attention to the options that are presented.

Voting in the November 2018 election may be one of the most important things you have ever done.

No one, including former elected officials, city staff or any of the current council members can waive a magic wand and make this issue go away, no matter what they say. Cutting a budget is hard to do.

— Ron Fink, a Lompoc resident since 1975, is retired from the aerospace industry and has been active with Lompoc municipal government commissions and committee since 1992, including 12 years on the Lompoc Planning Commission. He is also a voting member of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association. Contact him at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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