Turlock balances $40M budget by partially closing a fire station, making other cuts

The Turlock City Council has approved a spending plan for the upcoming budget year that calls for big reductions in services, including closing one of the city’s four fire stations one third to one half of the time as the city digs itself out from the overspending of the previous council.

While acknowledging it is not a budget they like but one that was necessary, council members voted 5-0 at their Tuesday meeting to approve Turlock’s 2019-20 budget, which starts July 1.

The focus was on the budget’s roughly $40 million general fund, where the reductions will be felt, and where the previous City Council approved spending that has drawn down the fund’s reserves. That spending has included hiring more people and approving higher pay.

The police and fire departments make up about 75 percent of the general fund.

“We are in a rare position here of being under some significant financial restraints,” said City Manger Bob Lawton, who has been with Turlock for about a year. “We’ve had a past history of paying recurring bills with nonrecurring money. And that was fine as long as the savings account held out. We are scraping the bottom now, this year.”

Representatives from two of Turlock’s labor groups urged the council to consider tax increases, which could include higher sales or business license taxes or establishing a utility users tax, so the city could be on a firmer financial ground and provide residents with the level of services they expect.

“For goodness sakes, would you please ask for our help and let us get started on this,” President Brandon Bertram of Turlock Associated Police Officers told council members, adding that his labor group has consistently offered its support in finding secure, long-term revenue sources for the city. “We have the community support, and we will obtain that goal, but the time is running out.”

Juan Vargas, vice president of the Turlock City Employees Association, told council members: “I know tax is a three-letter word that a lot of us don’t like to hear. But unfortunately, it’s going to be our only long-term solution.”

Vargas said that if the city cannot improve its general fund revenues within two years, it will have to start laying off employees. About 80 percent of general fund spending is for people.

The new budget does not lay off workers, but Lawton said it eliminates 16 positions that are vacant or will be vacant as of June 30. They include two police officers, three emergency service dispatchers, a police records technician, two firefighters, a fire division chief and four parks and recreation maintenance workers (though two of those positions will be transferred to streets and will not be funded through the general fund).

The reductions will be felt throughout the city. For instance, the city will mow the lawn at its parks less often. The budget also has steep reductions in police and fire overtime.

Fire Chief Robert Talloni told council members at a budget workshop before Tuesday’s council meeting that he would have to close a station at least one third to as much as half of the time because of having two fewer firefighters and less overtime money.

A fire station is staffed by a firefighter, captain and engineer. Talloni said his plan would be to close a station if he did not have three people to staff it and would assign that station’s firefighters to the other stations. Turlock will have 46 firefighters and needs 39 to staff its four stations, which includes battalion chiefs overseeing the stations.

That led to an exchange between Talloni and Lawton, in which the city manager provided a hypothetical involving fire station 2.

Lawton: “What I’m hearing, fire station 2, because of the absence of a firefighter, that would be closed, and the other two firefighters would be deployed to the other fire houses as opposed to leaving the remaining firefighters for that crew on duty at station 2 and dispatching both station 2 and 1, 3 or 4 or whichever is closest at the same time (to a call).”

Talloni: “That’s correct, sir.”

Police Chief Nino Amirfar asked council members to increase his budget’s overtime, saying without more funding the department will struggle to meet minimum staffing levels. The council did not approve his request.

He said that because of having less overtime money, his department can no longer operate its Community Assistance Response Engagement team, which works with the homeless, as well as its holiday patrols in downtown and at the Monte Vista Crossings shopping center.

City officials said that while Turlock’s revenues are growing, they are not keeping pace with expenses. They also said they will closely monitor the 2019-20 budget and quickly begin the work on the 2020-21 budget and in finding ways for the general fund to be self-sustaining.

Lawton said the November 2020 election would be the soonest time in which Turlock could ask voters to pay more in taxes if the council decided to pursue that. City Attorney Doug White said it would cost about $250,000 if the council decided to hold a special election before then.

Councilwoman Nicole Larson said the general fund approved by the council should be “the catalyst that strongly encourages us to seriously consider revenue increases, even if those sources of revenues make some people up here uncomfortable, including me.”

Mayor Amy Bublak and Councilman Gil Esquer are the only holdovers from the previous council. The three other members are new. Bublak, who had been a councilwoman, was elected mayor in November, when she defeated Mayor Gary Soiseth.

She was reluctant Tuesday to consider a tax increase, given that Turlock residents and businesses are facing higher water bills that would help pay for a drinking water project. She added that the city needs to gain the trust of its taxpayers by being responsible with their money before it could even consider a tax increase.

“I sat here over a year ago and I cautioned that we had financial problems,” Bublak said, adding that she wanted the council to explore how it could grow its revenues, something she can now pursue as mayor. “Now, I’m worried that we are talking about ... the only way to make it is to add to the taxes. Yes, that is a bad word to me.”

Turlock also has established a cannabis business pilot program, which would allow as many as four dispensaries and other businesses in the city. But lots of work remains to be done before the first business opens.

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