When Hollister City Councilman Ray Friend deadpanned, “I guess the goal of the next meeting is to come up with some goals,” he pretty much summed up the gist of the Feb. 8 special meeting to discuss the 2016-17 budget goals and objectives.
It took some time for the council to warm up to the topic.
Brett Miller, the city’s administrative services director, primed the procedural pump by telling the council that the staff felt it needed a small number of broad goals from the council to help department heads plan their budgets. He said once the council determined what their goals were, then the staff could formalize them and come up with some objectives in support of the goals.
Mayor Ignacio Velazquez said the primary goal for the last three years has been to get the city to the point of a balanced budget without the sales tax dollars brought in by Measure E (sales tax increase, passed by voters in 2012).
There was a back-and-forth between Miller and council members in an attempt to nail down everyone’s understanding of how to phrase what a goal is in order to hone in on objectives.
Bill Avera, city manager, said there was a need to hold the council accountable for whatever goals and objectives they came up with.
“It seems like in all the years I’ve been here that department heads have come up with different ideas they want to try to accomplish that get ratified by the council and we move forward,” he said. “What I’d like to see this year is that the council provides its goals. Then it’s our (staff) job to try to come up with the objectives to meet those goals.”
Avera responded to the mayor’s comment about cutting down on long-term debt, saying “If that’s a goal of the council, I get a little frustrated. If all the dollars we have should be going to pay off side funds, then we shouldn’t be doing any other things when we’ve giving money to nonprofits.
“As a council goal, as with side funds, the goal is to pay $800,000 over and above the principal in this particular year,” Avera said. “That way, we have something to shoot for and put that as the objective, to put aside $800,000, and then if you have nonprofits you want to donate to, that’s a good spot. But to just say, ‘we want to pay down side funds,’ there’s a wide range there. We can pay a little or pay a lot. We just want to make sure we’re doing what the council wants us to.”
Velazquez said the city has been aggressive for a number of years in paying down various forms of debt and pointed out that the city now needs to study the budget to better comprehend where the city stands fiscally, without the Measure E funds. He said what has been done in the past is to pay down debt and fund other projects using Measure E money and he wanted to know what could be changed in the ways the city spends.
Miller offered suggestions where the city might want to consider focusing, including gang abatement, street maintenance, maximizing various revenue funds, lowering utility rates, all ofwhich he described as overall goals that are fund-specific.
Councilman Victor Gomez said any goals should include the imbalance of jobs and housing.
“How are we going to address that elephant in the room?” he asked. “It’s a big issue that we need to continue to pursue.”
The mayor said there’s not a right or wrong answer in trying to nail down the city’s budget goals and objectives. He said there is a need to track how dollars are being used compared to the amount of sales tax dollars and how the future will look when those dollars, such as from the sales tax, disappear.
Miller said the staff is looking for direction from a high level and the departments will come up with possible solutions.
Avera tried to clarify a bit more using code enforcement as an example, stating that if one of the council’s goals is to “improve the living conditions of the citizens of Hollister,”and one of those ways is by making sure that people follow the municipal code, “that is something we’d bring back to you and say, ‘we would like to have another code enforcement officer top focus specifically on this.’”
“Whatever solutions we have to come up with to meet that goal, the department can use that information to come up with a solution,” Miller added.
Gomez said code enforcement is one of the city’s success stories.
“We heard from folks who were violating the law and they were upset that they got caught,” he said. “So, I thought that was effective, but we can do that in so many other ways. Look at our investment to parks. That’s been an effective investment and we’re hearing about it from members throughout the community. They’re very appreciative. But under economic development, what can we do to continue to drive those job numbers up?”
He said it’s an important conversation to have because of the traffic impact fees along with the impacts of commercial development and bringing jobs to the county.
“I know that the mayor was getting into specifics and you’re not necessarily looking for specifics, but just so we’re a little bit ahead, I do like what we’ve done with our side funds and I am supportive of paying down our credit cards,” Gomez said to Miller. “I think Billy (Avera) brings up an excellent point: ‘how are you giving money away, yet you have a bunch of outstanding debt.’ That boggles my mind.”
Gomez said he does not favor using the $3.5 to $4 million received under Measure E to pay down unfunded liabilities, but added that the council should find ways pay the debt down gradually, as has been done successfully the past few years.
Friend said he whole-heartedly supports paying down debt.
“The long-term savings is huge, but on the other side, I don’t want our goal to pay those down, if that’s one of our goals, and have to shut the city down,” he said. “We still have to live here and we owe it to the people who pay taxes to do the things we’ve been able to do, like the parks and to improve the roadways. I don’t believe that’s going to be very popular.”
Friend said he thinks there are some short-term goals that can be accomplished in 2016 that could be included in paying the debt down.
“I get complaints every week about street sweeping, or the lack there of,” he said. “I know we have to deal with sustainability with our city workforce. We need to look at that because people are leaving the city because we’re just not offering the packages they think they can get somewhere else.”
Friend said to Miller that he thinks the council does owe staff two or three overall goals.
“We can’t just say, ‘protect the citizens,’” he said. “What does that mean? It will mean one thing to the (police) chief (Westrick), it will mean something else to the fire department, and something else to streets and recreation.”
Miller said the goal could be that vague, and then it would be up to the staff to come up with the objectives for the council to approve. Friend said that over the past couple of years, the council and city staff have been successful at concentrating on paying down debt while accomplishing smaller projects that make taxpayers feel they’re “getting a little bang for their dollar.”
Miller said the objective of the meeting was to “talk about goals, so we can fine-tune them down for the council’s approval, and then the staff would come up with objectives to fit the goals as department heads go over the budget.”
Friend said, “Once we set these goals we have to live with them too. That’s going to be difficult because we change our minds three or four times a year.”
Councilwoman Mickie Luna wondered about an emergency services plan as a possible goal.
“We live in a community where earthquakes happen often,” she said. “Back in 1989, we were caught off-guard. The goal of the city should also include emergency services to make sure that we are prepared and the people know they live in a safe community, even though we are in earthquake country.”
She said there is work yet to do regarding parks.
“Not all of the parks have been completed,” Luna said. “Not everything we’ve been talking about for the past year has been implemented. We need to complete that goal.”
Councilman Karson Klauer said he had a wish list and emphasized that he didn’t necessarily have a plan how to implement any of the items on it.
“If I had all the money in the world these are the things I’d try to get done,” he said. “The first is to recruit and maintain quality personnel. I think we have a flight from the city of some of our best personnel. We struggle with recruiting good people for the positions we do have open. We seem to always have a number of positions open with the police department that stay open for a long time.”
Also on his wish list: Economic development, improving the sales tax base, increasing the number of high-paying jobs, a park in District 3, more community involvement, increasing multi-family housing, and improving the aesthetics of downtown.
“We don’t compare very well to other towns when it comes to just aesthetics,” he said, adding, “Another goal would be to promote private investment downtown. As a city, we can’t maintain and sustain downtown. We have opportunities to promote private investment. The more of other people’s money that we can get into downtown the easier it’s going to be on the city.”
Velazquez reiterated the need for clarity in expressing goals, particularly in regard to when Measure E ends in two years. He said the different programs the city started, such as parks and weed abatement, need to continue, and the public needs to know what the council is doing on its behalf.
“We talked about doing the newsletter and we did one and that was it,” he said, “although we allocated a $20,000 budget for it. We have to follow up and finish what we start, and make it clear what we’ve done.”
Velazquez said it’s important that everyone understands the numbers before trying to create new goals. Miller said the goal is not to spend more money, but to spend money the city already has through the new goals.
Avera agreed with both and said, “Everybody in this room knows that you can’t survive without Measure E. The question is, do you make improvements in parks, to the streets, and take your lumps when Measure E goes away, or do you save every penny that you have right now until Measure E expires so you can maintain the minimal level of service, which I believe you’re doing right now, for an additional couple years? That’s the decision that the council ultimately has to make.”
Avera said he gets frustrated as the council continues to spend money and then asks what will happen when the layoffs come in 2018.
“I would say, ‘if we didn’t spend the million dollars on cameras and this and this, we could have made it six months or more doing exactly what we’re doing right now when Measure E expires,” he said. “The council sets the policy on how the budget works and it’s our objective to spend it the way you want it spent. But it’s hard for us to say how are we going to get out of the Measure E hole when we’re not really doing anything to get out of it.”
The mayor maintained that the way to get out of the looming Measure E hole is to continue paying down debt and to work with each department to make sure they are working as efficiently as possible, and this can be done only by tracking where those dollars will be two years down the line.
Gomez said he wanted to remind everyone that when Measure E was passed, it was sold to taxpayers as an enhancement tax that would be used to provide services that the city has been providing and he agreed with Friend that there needs to be a balance of paying down debt while not losing focus in providing essential services. He also agreed with Avera that the council needs to be held accountable, but qualified this by saying that the city manager needs to give direction on how to use the funds the city already has.
Friend said that while he wasn’t prepared to give Avera his goals right then, he said after giving more thought to the process there should be another special meeting to discuss them.
“We each bring our own one or two goals, throw them in a pot and see which ones stick,” he said.