Civic Engagement on the Rise as City Budget Falters

At the February 4th, 2020, City Council meeting, Finance Director Mark Rasiah and City Manager Karen Pinkos presented the council members with a City budget no longer balanced. On top of that, we learned that the city’s bond rating is now BBB, which means there can not be any new bonds (like a library bond) passed. With council members visibly upset and extremely disappointed, we learned that the promised balanced budget for 2019-2020 required some serious cuts. Mayor Lyman directed staff to come back with 2 million dollars in cuts at the next meeting (February 18th). Furthermore, the City faces ascending expenses and revenues that are no longer increasing at the same levels with literally no safety net.

How did the city find themselves in this mess? What happened to the reserves? Didn’t the previous audit of 2018-19 suggest that the City faced some troubling financial times and why were no actions take then? (See our previous blog post). Engaged citizens organized themselves into the El Cerrito Committee for Responsible Government, and are calling on the City Council for greater transparency and accountability. To learn more about the financial situation facing our city please visit their website.

In just a week, City staff will be hosting a Strategic Planning meeting for community input. In the past, the meeting intended to offer residents a space for visioning the future, to dream big, and prioritize needs. This year residents will be asked to prioritize services, and contest cuts in some areas and favor cuts in others. At the prior public meetings, residents have repeatedly spoken out about protecting the Fire Department staff and council reiterated that as a priority. City staff produced a non-strategic list of random cuts for a 2019/2020 balanced budget. This list included the removal of the annual 4th of July event from the budget as well as a cut in library hours and senior services.

What do you think? Please let the city staff and council know. You can do so using the strategic plan on-line survey due by Feb. 14 (Valentine’s Day). You can also email the city manager and the council or speak out an any of the scheduled meetings.

The Strategic Plan OPEN HOUSE is this Wednesday, Feb. 12 from 6 pm to 8 pm at the City Council Chambers. There is also a City Council Strategic Plan Workshop is March 14, Saturday, from 9:30 – 2 pm also at the City Council Chambers. 

How can we be progressive rather than reactive amidst this financial challenge?

Some suggestions are:

Reduce operational funding from Departments where it is possible. This is the task of the Department Heads to audit their own internal expenditures. How much are they spending on consultants and why do they not feel that they have the expertise to address issues in their field?

Freeze positions and management promotions- no more new hires until the City can begin to institute new streams of revenue through the engagement with volunteers/citizens who do not charge consultant fees.

Retain needed services including library hours and Senior services. We need to rethink how people with less resources often highly utilize what are considered non-essential services. To many these services are indeed essential? What would be the impact on those residents if the services were cut? What would that mean for isolated seniors who use the Center as a means to break their isolation and/or have a meal. What does significantly reducing library hours mean for working families who cannot afford to order their books from Amazon or Barnes and Noble and use the library for computers, printers, and other services that they may not have access to otherwise.

Expect the City Manager and the Finance Director to be accountable to the City Council and provide adequate and timely information so that our elected officials can make informed decisions on our behalf. Expect the City Council to hold them staff accountable and ask the tough questions.

Involve residents by engaging in a transparent budgeting process that allows us to review the assumptions, the analysis and the outcomes of the prepared budgets.

Address the overtime issue of the Fire Department. Overtime Pay was a factor in the poor financial health of this city. This year it is budgeted at 1.2 million dollars. It is not sufficient to get a verbal reassurance that overtime is cheaper than other alternatives. Citizens need a written analysis of staffing patterns vs. overtime. How much revenue is reimbursed? That information needs to be provided to the City Council and the public via the city website. We all cherish the work of the Fire Department but this is an issue not only in El Cerrito. Other cities have cut down on overtime, how did they achieve this?

Engage this very talented community in a task force to create economic development in the community and have a staff person dedicated to this task. When this issue has been brought up many citizens have lots of ideas but city staff seem to disregard them all. This is a crisis it is time to think outside the box.

Citizens need to do their part too. We must hold council accountable. This new transparency is coming forth due to regular citizens demanding a town hall meeting and asking the tough questions. Everyone needs to engage in the manner they can.

We would love to hear your comments on even more ways to help El Cerrito resolve this fiscal crisis in a transparent, accountable, progressive, and compassionate manner. Please comment below with your ideas!