City Council

Funding for library, arts, groups saved

When retired art-history professor Delores Mitchell came to the podium Tuesday night (Dec. 18) to ask the Chico City Council not to cut funding for the arts, she told a story about English Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

During World War II, when England faced “a tremendous financial crisis,” she said, Churchill continued to insist the government support symphonies and theater groups. When asked why he didn’t spend the money instead on armaments, he replied: “The war we’re fighting is to preserve our culture.”

“I hope the city will follow Churchill’s example,” Mitchell said, and then sat down to the applause of many in the capacity audience.

There was a lot of such talk, much of it quite eloquent, as more than two dozen people stepped forward to ask the council not to cut funding for the library, the arts and community-based service groups in its effort to balance the city budget. These are what make Chico the special place it is, they said.

For the first time since the spring, when it became clear the city faced a long-term fiscal shortfall of some $56 million over the next 10 years, the council was set to make some cuts. Although it will be able to balance its budget by making fund transfers for at least through the 2008-09 fiscal year, in 2010 it will no longer be able to do so, so it needed to start making corrections now. By law, the city is required to have a balanced budget.

Under discussion was a set of recommendations from the council’s Finance Committee based on initial proposals from interim City Manager Dave Burkland. Altogether the committee’s recommendations added up to $2.1 million annually and reduced the 10-year deficit to $35 million, Finance Director Jennifer Hennessey said.

The committee did not recommend cutting the city’s subsidy of $170,000 to the county library to keep the Chico branch open an additional 25 hours weekly, and took no position on saving some $200,000 by cutting funding for some 40 arts and community-based organizations by 30 percent.

Ultimately, the council unanimously voted not to make those cuts for the 2008-09 budget, but it left open the possibility that the groups—especially the service groups—could face reductions in coming years. Otherwise, it voted to approve all the recommended cuts.

Councilman Scott Gruendl noted that, while the arts groups attracted people to Chico and were net revenue generators, the CBOs were “in a different boat. … It’s an issue of fairness. We can’t ask our employees to [accept cuts] when we’re not willing to cut elsewhere.”

Some 58 percent of city employees have so-called “enhanced” health insurance plans, and the council will be asking them to pay more, for a savings of $450,000 annually. The city has also asked the Fire Department to develop a plan to save $350,000 to $400,000 a year.

Gruendl asked the council to move immediately to begin a meet-and-confer process with the unions to develop a framework for dealing with budget adjustments, both short- and long-term. The council unanimously voted to do so.

The dilemma it faces is that the CBOs provide a wide range of important services—from feeding the homeless to helping at-risk kids—far more cost-effectively than government does. As one CBO director said following the meeting, a cut of, say, $20,000 that would hardly be missed in a government agency could mean the loss of two employees to his group.

Burkland has chosen to divide the budget-balancing effort into three phases. Phase I, which began Tuesday, is to make cuts that won’t affect levels of service. Phase II is to develop a “comprehensive financial strategy that will address the structural imbalance….” And Phase III is to extend that strategy to provide for the future needs of the city, including getting the public involved.

Whether this last is a veiled reference to the idea of raising the sales tax is hard to say, and that didn’t come up as a subject Tuesday night. But it’s on people’s minds, because as much as the council accomplished this week, it still has to find another $35 million somewhere.

In other meeting news, the council added three new members to the General Plan Advisory Committee, and—no surprise here—two of them were women. The council had been criticized following its original selection of the committee for picking only one woman and eight men, along with a male alternate.

Two weeks ago, on Dec. 4, it voted to make that alternate, Tony Kilcollins, a regular member and add three new members. Councilmembers didn’t say it was to add women—they suggested it was to have a cushion in case people dropped out—but the real reason was obvious.

The new members are Sara Adams, an artist and business owner; Kristen McHenry, a biologist intern with River Partners; and Michael Worley, a substitute teacher.