It was almost like watching parents decide which child they love most.
In an effort to bridge a $4 million to $5 million budget gap, staffers sought direction from the Merced City Council and confirmation on what list of service priorities the council thought were important in the city's general fund.
The list included various city programs that received funds from the general fund. From the overall list, the council chose to discuss three programs that use the most fund money: police, fire and parks.
Council members were confronted with the hard reality that some hallowed programs might have to be thrown overboard to sustain the city as a going concern.
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All seven council members were given a survey and asked to fill it out, and the results were discussed at the meeting, according to Mike Conway, public information officer for the city.
Conway said the staff wants "more guidance and (ask the council) the bigger picture policy areas of where do you have the ideas and political will to look for changes."
The city faces a general fund deficit. The fund is where most of the city's discretionary money is accounted for. That gap is $4 to $5 million because the fund has seen a decline of revenues across the board, according to Bill Cahill, assistant city manager.
At the so-called "sustainability" meeting last month, city staff tried to focus on ways to come up with alternatives for revenue spending in the form of various taxes. The council approved further research by the staff.
"Tonight we focus on service priorities. We focus on the expenses side," Cahill said at Monday's meeting.
The general fund has been depleted this year because of the recession, Cahill said, which some thought "might be short- lived but turned out to be much longer than expected."
He also said it was exceptionally tough to cut line items worth $5 million.
"Our expenses are in people who are employees. It's difficult getting this expenses reduction without affecting people," he said. Some line items include wages, contributions to retirement and benefits. "Another approach takes a vertical look at the organizational look at the departments -- programs, services, which programs you view as being the most essential, the most core."
The council's overall priorities that receive general fund expenditures were police, fire, economic development, code enforcement, parks, streets, planning, recreation, street trees, airport, visitor services and zoo.
Councilwoman Mary-Michal Rawling stressed that it's "not necessarily deciding on cutting a service but trying to figure out how to pay for it."
Out of the priorities, police, fire, and parks were the top areas chosen for discussion. Cahill showed the council individual programs in police, fire and parks and asked the council members "which services in each of these programs would you say is most important?"
"This may or may not be how much you value these services; the question is how much general funds should go to these services?" Cahill asked.
Cahill noted that there's a difference between parks and recreation. Parks are actual physical locations, or green space for the community, while recreation is the activities that go on in the parks, he said.
Police are the priciest program, with more than $16 million of the general fund money. The council assigned 12 areas numerical priority, such as patrol, gang enforcement/prevention, dispatch (911), investigations, crime response team, traffic, school resource, graffiti and investigation. Councilman Bill Blake said the only difference he could find was putting dispatch above patrol and "my personal look at this is investigations and gangs and everything else is right on order."
"Dispatch is where it all starts," he said. Councilman Josh Pedrozo agreed with Blake, saying dispatch is important because it is shared with the fire department. He said he disagreed with investigations, saying gang prevention was more important.
Rawling said she couldn't see how she could scratch any of the 12 items off the list. "It's so interrelated to each other," she said.
There was no deviation from the list, according to Cahill.
The fire department receives $7.73 million from the general fund -- the second largest expenditure. The items in that category were fire response, rescue, medical calls, fire inspections, hazardous materials, prevention services, public education, weed abatement and special events.
Parks receive just more than $1 million from the fund pot, Cahill said.
Cahill also asked the council what they thought about special events in the city, such as the Christmas Parade, Summerfest, Take Back the Night March and others.
"The bottom line is people expect certain events when they live in the community, and we should embrace them," said Mayor Bill Spriggs. "That's what makes us a community."
Overall,the council didn't change around any of the survey research from the city staff.
"The list showed that the response on the written surveys were accurate in reflecting the groups' ideas as a whole," Cahill said.
Cahill said the staff will come back to the council with more rough ideas of how to approach bridging the general fund gap. And he said there will probably be more discussion.
Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.