Numbers crunch

For more on city spending:
See Dr. Richard Ek’s essay, “Look beneath the surface.”

Chico is at a crossroads. City councilmembers recognize this. So do city staffers. So do residents. With both the city and county general plans up for revision, officials and citizens are looking to the future.

That will be the orientation of councilmembers on Tuesday (June 5) during their annual budget session.

Usually, the day-long meeting focuses on the short-term—allocations and income for the coming fiscal year. But last year’s council approved a two-year budget, running through 2008. The priority for this process is planning ahead.

In the eyes of City Manager Greg Jones, Chico’s forecast is stormy. He projects a 10-year deficit of more than $40 million, a figure bandied about during the election campaign last fall.

The city is growing, which in theory means a bigger tax base but in practical terms means a greater strain on city resources. (Check out Dr. Richard Ek’s essay for a potent example.)

This City Council, in which the “progressives” hold a 5-2 advantage over the “conservatives,” faces some hard decisions with lasting implications.

“It’s like planning for our retirement—if we keep doing it on a year-to-year basis, we’d be shortchanging ourselves and our families,” said Councilwoman Mary Flynn, one of the two new members of the progressive five. “I feel good about the fact that we’re building a really authentic picture of the city’s finances long term, so the people who follow me can concentrate on good governance.”

Larry Wahl, in the two-man minority, has an overarching goal: “I’m looking for a balanced budget that allows us to grow [financially] and provide public safety, fix roads and finish our parks.” To accomplish this, he’s eyeing cuts, “which isn’t actually growth but sets aside money for other uses.” He says he’s thought about some trims, “but I want to hear what the city manager has in mind.”

Tom Nickell, like Flynn a first-term progressive, is paying particular attention to the police force (which makes sense for a retiring CHP officer), but that’s just one piece of the puzzle.

“The city of Chico has never had any type of police planning for growth,” he said, “yet we project where our next fire station is going to be and where we need proper service in terms of fire safety. Right now, we’re working minimums [in police staffing levels]; with all the annexations we have, we have to be proactive.”

Not just in policing but in budgeting, too. Like Wahl, he’s eying some cuts, particularly for capital projects in the pipeline (e.g., widening Cohasset and building fire station No. 7). He does not want to cut pay and benefits for city employees, yet he knows more money must come in, so he’s in favor of a sales-tax increase—a quarter- or half-percent.

“We need to sit back and say, ‘What do we want? What does the public want?’ We need to let them make the decisions,” he said. “If we cut services, people are going to scream. Everyone wants something. We need to prioritize what we need. I want people to come in and tell me what they want.”

Tuesday seems like a fine time to do that.