Montebello Scrimps, Saves to Balance Budget

Other departments took hits to keep public safety whole.

By Elizabeth Hsing-Huei Chou, EGP Staff Writer

A combination of cost-saving measures that included contract re-negotiations, grant opportunities, and cuts to programs at the city skate park has allowed Montebello officials to stave off layoffs and avoid further cuts to public safety in the latest round of city budgeting.

“Layoffs will not take place at this time,” City Finance Director Francesca Tucker-Schuyler announced at a May 30 budget study session. She said city revenue levels will be monitored on a month by month basis.

When the budget planning started the city was looking at a $3 million deficit. The balanced budget presented last week projects a surplus, with $44.49 million in revenues and $44.42 million in expenditures for the 2012-2013 year.

Lea esta nota EN ESPAÑOL: Montebello Economiza, Ahorra para Equilibrar el Presupuesto

Tucker-Schuyler, who recently also took over as the interim city manager, said while the balanced budget presented at the meeting is “not an ideal budget,” it is nevertheless “adequate.”

Furloughs, negotiations over pension payments and layoffs have already occurred in recent years. Instead of going for savings through cutting employee salary costs, the city made a “concerted effort” to trim operating and maintenance budgets and renegotiate or drop outside contracts with vendors and consultants, said Tucker-Schuyler.

The city also redistributed expenditures in their enterprise funds, in particular the golf course fund, which has recorded a deficit for years. According to officials, the fund was being used to not only to pay for golf course expenditures, but also the expenditures of the adjacent hotel and banquet hall.

The resulting balanced budget presented last week benefited from efforts by each department’s to trim operating costs. Each of the departments scrimped and saved between $50,000 to $200,000 depending on the department, and ultimately, the effort paid off in keeping the fire and police department budgets whole this year. Even though the public safety departments made their own cuts, they actually saw some increases to their budgets mainly due to merit increases in employee salaries.

The fire department’s budget increased from $8.7 million to $8.8 million for the upcoming year, even after making $50,000 in cuts, and getting awarded a grant for a new fire engine. Fire Chief Tim Wessel says they are pursuing more grants, but competition with other fire departments throughout the country continues to be stiff.

Wessel said they already saw a “drastic change” this past year when they reduced daily staffing levels from 16 to 15 firefighters a day, which has resulted in one of the department’s paramedic engines getting downgraded to a paramedic assessment unit.

He thanked the other departments for taking cuts so that they would not have to reduce staffing levels even further. “Quite frankly, I came in here early last week and was prepared to start defending the possibility of staff lowering… any further reduction in staff and we were going to have to look at the closure or browning out of a fire station,” he said.

The fire department had been considering eliminating vacant positions, but Tucker-Schuyler said they “went back to the drawing board, and had additional conversations with other department heads.”

The police department also saw increases in their budget despite efforts to cut. Police Chief Kevin McClure reported they were able to cover $350,000 in overtime costs by using asset forfeiture funds, and saved $275,000 in maintenance and operating costs. Their overall budget however is going up next year, from $13.9 million to $14.4 million.

McClure said they took a much closer look at their contracts, and determined they could get rid of some them. “We had contracts that was dessert, but we don’t have the money to eat dessert right now,” he said, adding they have a better handle on every contract and will continue to work with vendors to reduce costs, keeping only the “meat and potatoes.”

One of the areas the city could see actual service cuts and employee hours, beyond what’s already occurred, is in the municipal services department, which runs parks and recreation services. Teen activities at the city’s skate park were cut in the budget, and part-time workers are expected to work reduced hours. The department as a whole also handles the maintenance of trees, parks, and streets. The total amount cut from this department is $342,000, which brings the municipal service’s budget down to $3.4 million.

Other departments, including the administrative branch, have trimmed their operating budgets. For example, some departments lowered their printing budgets and limited their legal spending in order to meet the balanced budget.

The balanced budget presented last week rounds out a year that started with the city seeking a private loan because it did not have enough in its bank account to pay its employees on time. The city got its loan, but they still had a projected $3 million deficit in the upcoming year to deal with

Tucker-Schuyler was offered the job of interim city administrator when Keith Breskin resigned at the end of May, leaving little time for her to finish up and package each department’s budget in time for the budget session. A version of the budget now posted on the city website still needs to be polished and revised, and will be brought back at the next council meeting for final approval.

City council members said at the study session that Tucker-Schuyler, who has in the last 16 months become closely acquainted with the city’s financial difficulties, is especially suited at this time to helm the city. The city will also save $157,000 because it will not be paying for the city administrator position.

The final budget will be presented and approved at a future city council meeting.

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June 7, 2012  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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