Let priorities be guidelines

Current budget policies are fine as they are

There are good arguments on both sides of the Chico City Council’s debate on whether to make replenishing the city’s reserves the highest priority during the upcoming budgeting process.

Some council members believe the reserves, especially the operational reserve, are dangerously low. They note that the operational reserve contains only $142,553, not the $3 million called for by city budget policies. (The emergency reserve, at $5.8 million, is more robust but not at the ideal level of $9 million.) They worry that, should the city suddenly need to come up with additional funds, they wouldn’t be available.

Other council members, while acknowledging the reserves are low, hesitate to institute strict priorities out of fear that doing so would lock the city into spending priorities that could be injurious to certain programs and services. They believe existing budget policies, which call for “a balance between public safety, infrastructure and quality-of-life services,” are adequate for addressing the reserves while giving city staff sufficient flexibility to be creative.

The proposal to prioritize the budget process came originally from Councilman Bob Evans, who intended it to be a set of guidelines for City Manager Dave Burkland and his staff as they worked on the 2012-13 budget. Highest priority would go to restoring the reserves, next to replacing eliminated staff positions, and finally to staff raises.

Evans and other council members, especially Vice Mayor Jim Walker, insist the proposal is not intended to “lock in” any particular set of actions, but rather, as Evans put it during the council’s Feb. 21 meeting, “to give direction to Dave during these tough budget times.”

We agree that such direction is warranted. As Councilman Scott Gruendl put it, “Not having an operational reserve is a red flag.” That reserve in particular needs to be replenished—not necessarily to the $3 million level right away, but as much as is feasible.

We also agree that the priorities should not be “locked in.” Evans originally wanted his proposal it be sent to Burkland as a letter endorsed by his fellow council members. This remains the right approach. It’s a temporary set of priorities meant for a unique situation—"tough budget times"—and should not be included among the city’s ongoing budget policies. They are fine as they are.