Ashton: Ceres' manager has seen it before

07/05/2010 5:30 AM

07/05/2010 6:19 AM

Ceres City Manager Brad Kilger watched California economies boom and bust in his 30-year career in local government, giving him the impression the Gold Rush still shapes the Golden State's approach to budgeting.

He was on hand as the aerospace industry fled Southern California in the 1980s and '90s, as the military shuttered bases critical to community economies in the early '90s and the dot-com bust showed that even tech could collapse as the millennium turned.

Each time, a new economy emerged.

"We encourage new ideas. We're willing to take risks. That makes us more vulnerable to a recession, but it also helps us rebound more quickly because we reinvent ourselves," he said.

This time Kilger still doesn't see the bottom. Construction pulled the state up after the dot-com bust, and that industry remains stressed by a lack of financing, an overabundance of housing and a job shortage that keeps people from buying homes.

"No one anticipated there'd by three years of (property tax) reassessments" cutting revenue to local government.

"In past recessions I've been in, there were no reassessments. It just really hits to the core of what you do," he said.

This recession exposed another trend that followed Kilger's career -- complicated budget Band-Aids that mask the state's financial troubles until the next boom takes off. These move money from schools to local government to state government and back again in such a way that doesn't address underlying challenges.

Today the state faces a $19 billion deficit and lawmakers' spending plan already is past due. One proposal floating around Sacramento would shift more responsibilities to county and local governments. That's the kind of idea that makes longtime local government officials shudder, because in their experience the money for those services is all too easy to take away when Sacramento hits a crunch.

Reserves stashed, budgets updated

That uncertainty has officials throughout the valley stashing away reserves and updating their budgets constantly.

"What the state does is push their problems down so they don't have to deal with them," Kilger vented.

Indulge Kilger that venting. Like other city managers, he's been making tough decisions to slash spending and deal with this extended downturn.

At least three signs in Ceres City Hall declare "No Whining." They're not where the customers can see them, but they set a tone. Two of them are in Kilger's office.

Ceres has about 200 employees, 10 percent fewer than a year ago. The city's workers took 10 percent wage cuts this year, with police officers contributing to their pensions, a significant step toward helping Ceres get a handle on its long-term liabilities.

Ceres is working with other cities to find ways to share services, such as utilities and information technology systems.

This city was never fat. Art de Werk has been Ceres' police chief and fire chief for as long as I can remember. Now his top deputy in the Police Department also is the city's human resources manager.

Voters stepped up for public safety

Ceres voters took matters into their own hands three years ago when they adopted a half-cent sales tax for public safety. It's not that people in Ceres thought they weren't paying enough taxes. It's that they wanted to get the money in a place where they could see results -- on their own streets.

That gives Ceres a degree of predictability in its budgeting that Kilger doesn't expect to see from the opaque money management coming out of the Legislature. And that's a reason for him to get ready for the next boom -- and the next bust.

"Unless they really fix this thing in the state, and I doubt they will, I think they're going to Band-Aid it again -- we'll have another recession in 10 years, and you have to prepare for that," he said.

Bee Assistant City Editor Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

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