Council gets an earful on money matters
The Chico City Council, along with a few members of the public including council candidates, were treated Tuesday (Oct. 23) to an almost mind-numbingly detailed presentation by city department heads on what their respective departments do, their budgets, staffing and goals. The meeting was an extension of the Oct. 16 regular meeting, which ran out of time after five of the 12 department heads had weighed in.
This marked the first time in decades since this approach to studying the budget was taken, said a former councilmember who asked not to be named. New City Manager Brian Nakamura organized the meeting, in which each presentation, including a PowerPoint presentation, would take an estimated four to five minutes. Didn’t happen, as most of the department heads used the opportunity to fully explain the myriad responsibilities their staffs had, how many employees they were down and their goals and challenges in an uncertain economy.
Overall the city is treading water and using innovations like sharing employees among departments to lower expenditures and meet budget allocations. The departments have cumulatively spent 23.1 percent of their annual operating budgets in the first quarter, according to numbers presented by Jennifer Hennesey, the city’s finance director.
Nakamura told the council that the city needs to concentrate on a recovery plan, set strict budget policies and try to dip into emergency reserves less often so they’re there in case of an emergency.
The last two presentations came from Fire Chief Jim Beery and Police Chief Kirk Trostle, whose departmental budgets make up $35.7 million of the city’s total $43 million budget.
The Fire-Rescue Department has a budget of $13.4 million, said Beery, which is $1.5 million less than in the 2007-08 fiscal year, though there has been a 30 percent increase in calls. Five years ago the department had 22 on-duty firefighters per shift, and now it has 18. Beery said the department is absent an important administrative-assistant position but is getting help from the City Manager’s Office, which is sharing an employee.
“I’m writing my own reports and spreadsheets,” Beery told the council. “There are better things I could be doing.”
Goals include filling five firefighting vacancies, updating reporting software, pursuing additional grant opportunities and considering fees for services such as inspection charges and emergency medical service calls. That wouldn’t be popular with taxpayers, he said, but it’s legal.
The department is also looking to replace a ladder truck, one of which has been out for three months waiting for a part. The truck is so old that a replacement part is no longer available and had to be manufactured from scratch, the chief explained.
Councilman Andy Holcombe asked about the status of the six fire stations, one of which was closed for a short time earlier this year, causing some protests at council meetings and in letters to the editor. “I’ve heard we could serve the city as well with five instead of six if they were located in other locations,” Holcombe said.
“I’m just trying to pay the phone bill right now,” Beery told Holcombe. “The loss of [redevelopment funding] really hurts. So we can’t build five new stations in new locations. And that wouldn’t mean we would need fewer firefighters. We’d still be short.”
The Police Department’s allocated budget, including $513,694 for animal services, is $22.5 million, with $10.3 million of that for salaries, $6.9 million in benefits and $1.5 million for overtime pay. That overtime pay includes $49,000 for an extra 784 hours of staffing for the three-day Labor Day weekend.
Police Chief Trostle said overtime also occurs unplanned, such as during the recent Terra Terrace incident, in which officers responded to reports of an armed man holed up in an apartment. The stand-off lasted a number of hours and ended when officers shot and killed the man after he had opened a door and fired on them. The incident cost $34,512 in overtime.
Halloween is expected to call for another $52,000 in overtime pay for the police.
There are currently two unfunded police officer positions, five officers out on medical leave, two vacancies, and two service retirements expected by the end of the year and three to five more next year. The department should have 56 patrol officers, but currently has only 43 available, Trostle said.