Thursday, February 22 , 2018, 5:50 am | Fair 36º

 
 
 
 
Advice

Ron Fink: Behind Schedule and with Deadline Nearing, City of Lompoc Needs to Get Budget Approved

By now, most political jurisdictions have completed their budget hearings and are ready to adopt the next budget. Lompoc hasn’t even begun preliminary discussions of its next two-year budget.

This is troubling because this year’s budget will be unlike any other in Lompoc history. When City Administrator Patrick Wiemiller took over a little more than a year ago, he discovered that past budgets had been hastily prepared by staff using methods that didn’t examine expenditures carefully.

In the past, the staff seemed to look at the last budget, add a couple of percent and then called the job complete. Then they would hold a series of workshops spanning two or three meetings to receive “council direction” and a then-willing council would rubber stamp it.

I have attended many Lompoc city budget hearings over the last two decades, and one thing that amazed me was how department heads and whoever happens to be elected to the City Council at the time determined how much to budget for each function without any real justification.

One example of how much analysis went into the budget process was a discussion of how much time a particular staff member spent performing a specific function; during the public workshop, the council raised it by 20 percent without any analysis of past costs or any real justification for the budget increase just because everyone thought it was a good idea!

In another, the council was considering adding fuel service to the city airport. Two items were needed to fulfill this request — a fuel tank and a delivery truck. To my amazement, one council member, supported by others, suggested cutting the fuel truck from the budget to save money.

During public comment, they were asked how they expected to get the fuel from the tank into airplanes without a truck. The truck was quickly restored, but this points out a weakness that prevailed prior to the arrival of Mr. Wiemiller.

This year it’s different. The budget has been reorganized and, according to a presentation made during the May 5 council meeting, the “focus (has) changed to service delivery” — in other words, what does it really cost to deliver the required service.

The staff took this new budgeting approach seriously; they analyzed their service delivery tasks and concluded that the General Fund services needed 40 additional full-time positions at a cost of $6.9 million over the last two-year budgeted amount. Other accounts, which are likely the utility enterprise funds, were asking for 33 additional full-time positions at a cost of $7.3 million.

Some staffing adjustments are justified; for example, grant funding for police and fire department positions will expire during the current budget and both departments are requesting that these positions become permanent.

Other significant changes are proposed. During this presentation, staff revealed that they are proposing a reallocation of existing positions and programs; consolidation of General Fund programs; elimination/reduction of some contract services and replacing them with in-house services and a merger of the public library into city government.

Not mentioned in this presentation were the infrastructure improvements that have been previously identified, including a new fire station ($15 million-plus); police station renovation ($8 million-plus); a transportation center ($8 million); and a complete overhaul of the parks system (cost unknown).

Considering the current flow of tax and fee revenue, this will be a steep hill to climb, and surely some costs must be cut before this budget reaches the council.

This is the first time that any city administrator has taken a cold, hard look at what needs to be done and what it takes to do it — starting at zero funding and working through to a final estimate.

The council will undoubtedly have many questions concerning the preparation, conclusions reached and impact of this new budget. The public will have questions, too, and considering the public process that must be followed it appears that the approval of this budget by June 30 will be tricky.

So who is dropping the ball here? From my perspective, the city administrator and his staff should be commended for their approach to this budget session. That being said, surely they realized that there was a deadline for completing this task.

Anyone familiar with the budget process, and certainly the elected members of the council, some of whom have served for several years, knows that budget discussions usually start in mid-March. So when March and April passed without any hint of a budget workshop, wouldn’t you think the council should have requested a schedule for budget hearings?

And considering the many festivities in June council members and the public are already committed to, finding a convenient time for budget hearings is going to be a challenge.

It’s time to stop stirring the soup and start serving it. No budget is ever perfect, and that’s why the staff returns to the council at regular intervals to request supplemental appropriations to deal with unforeseen situations.

On Tuesday, the council is scheduled to hear a presentation of the draft budget, but it will be no decision-making hearing. Approving the City of Lompoc budget is running late. Let’s get the job done!

— 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]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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