City Council Opens Hearing into Planned 2019 Budget, Possibly Last Balanced Budget for the Foreseeable Future

Council hears from Fire Department, Recreation; Fire Department is ‘already thin’ says city manager; Recreation will keep summer interns

Published : Tuesday, May 22, 2018 | 5:14 AM

Facing financially treacherous years ahead, the City Council Monday heard testimony and discussion from various City department managers with regard to Pasadena’s proposed Fiscal Year 2019 Operating Budget.

The Council officially received City Manager Steve Mermell’s $815.1 million spending plan and opened the public hearing starting the deliberative process.

The 2019 budget, which comes in $32 million higher than 2018’s, is barely balanced. Fiscal Year 2020 is expected to face a $3.5 million budget gap, with the budget deficit gap projected to balloon to $32 million over the next five years.

Anticipating the impending deficits, over the past ten years the City has made $19 million in preemptive cost reductions including the elimination of 123 full-time equivalent staff positions. Those positions included 23 sworn police officer positions.

To help close the upcoming gap, Mermell recommended departmental budget reductions totaling $2,349,000 that include the elimination of another 14.8 full-time equivalent positions in various City departments (all of which are currently vacant). The positions include five more police officers and three park officers, cuts in the Fire Department, the City Attorney’s office, in business development, and in the Human Services and Recreation Department.

Following months of public meetings and online surveys, the City is now discussing various department budget cuts before approving the budget, in time for the end of the fiscal year June 30.

Following afternoon discussions about the Police Department budget in the Finance Committee, the full Council met to discuss cuts in the Fire Department budget.

Fire Chief Bertral Washington answered a barrage of questions from nearly all of the Councilmembers, particularly over a proposal to eliminate a battalion chief, a $ 246,000 yearly position that is currently empty.

Gordo questioned the savings in not filling the position, saying, “This [savings] looks problematic since the position is already empty.”

Councilmember Andy Wilson voiced concern over the lack of the position, noting that the position is responsible for training new and current firefighters. Wilson asked Washington if there were other “alternatives” other than not hiring a battalion chief.

Washington also noted that the Battalion chief ‘s duties could be split, but conceded that the lack of training could affect the department’s Insurance Services Office (ISO) classification. (Insurance Services Office, a private corporation that evaluates industries for insurance rating purposes. Insurance companies use this rating to determine proper insurance rates for structures in the fire district. The worse the rating, the higher the local insurance premiums.)

Said Washington, “We’ve had many discussions, over the years, we’ve talked about maybe three firefighters on a truck, instead of four? We’ve also discussed ‘rolling brownouts’ (which would eliminate engine staffing for 12-hour shifts). We don’t want to do any of that stuff.”

City Manager Mermell told the Council he considers the Fire Department “already thin.”

“There are not a lot of opportunities to make cuts, unless you actually change deployments, which would be a huge step and another discussion,” he said.

Mermell also pointed out that “there are no real layoffs in the Fire Department budget.”

Councilmember Steve Madison noted that the online survey from residents showed that 911 response is important to citizens, and remarked, “I hear from my constituents all the time how important safety is,” adding, “Economics is the science of human choice in a world of limited resources, and I think we make a mistake if we just assume that all the departments are equal, or that all the services that the City provides are equal. I think we should listen to our constituents.”

Madison, who has three fire stations in his district, also acknowledged that he does not support the elimination of the training battalion chief position.

“It just seems extremely risky in terms of our ISO classification,” he added.

Councilmember John Kennedy, in his questioning, asked Washington about state and federal grants available for staffing, particularly FEMA Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grants.

Washington responded that SAFER Grants are generally applied to hire back first responders after a city has had to lay them off.

Human Services and Recreation Department manager Horace Wormley told the Council that his department budget is 4% less in 2019.

Wormley also noted a budget of $31,500 in community events support, more than a dozen each year. According to Wormely, nearly $25,000 remains, and that “There will be no abatement of schedule events.

There are also 140 Summer Rose Interns to be hired this summer, instead of 160. But Wormley told Councilmember Kennedy, who wanted to retain the larger number, that it’s a school scheduling issue.

“We pick up some in June, and some in July,” said Wormley, who confirmed that no Summer Rose intern positions will be eliminated.

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