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New Vista budget reflects hard times

VISTA — After three quarters of declining revenue projections, Vista’s city staff have put together a draft 2009-2010 budget which they hope will get them through another hard year.
The $65 million budget, presented by City Management staff at the May 25 City Council meeting, is nearly $5 million leaner than last year’s. Fifty-nine employee positions, one fifth of the city’s roster, are unfunded. The open positions in Engineering and Community Development reflect the current construction slowdown. Others, like the cuts in parks and facility maintenance, will be more noticeable with cleanings and refurbishments scheduled less frequently.
Public safety takes up 60 percent of the city’s budget and hence has suffered the largest reduction — around $3.5 million. Eight sheriff’s station positions are unfilled, although none of them are duty officers. Patrol areas will remain unaffected and the popular gang resistance and junior deputy academy programs will continue, City Manager Rita Geldert said.
Four of the six of the fire department’s inspector positions remain unfilled but no suppression personnel or “firefighters” have been cut.
“Public safety’s one of the No. 1 priorities of the City Council and we just opened two new fire stations,” Assistant City Manager Patrick Johnson said. “We want to see a reduction in our response times.”
Vista is still moving ahead on a variety of projects, largely funded by the half-cent Proposition L sales tax. The new Civic Center building will be finished in the summer of 2010. Fire Station No. 1’s seismic refit and remodeling will be done in March 2010.
Redevelopment is continuing apace with 400 new homes planed for South Santa Fe and new mixed-use projects planned for downtown and on East Vista Way. The newly revamped Moonlight Amphitheater will be open year-round.
The proposed budget still contains a deficit of just more than $1 million. Although fiscal reserves were used to balance last year’s and next year’s budgets, Geldert said the city could not allocate any more for fear of damaging its credit rating. Instead, the fire department has been tasked with finding more government grants. Geldert also said she hoped negotiations with the city’s three labor unions would help narrow the budget gap.
The draft budget will appear before the council for final approval June 23. That won’t be the end of the story, however. Geldert noted that it was possible city revenues could decrease even more, requiring more mid-course corrections as the year went on. Worse still is an impending $1.8 million funds grab by the state to shore up its own sagging budget.
Notwithstanding those concerns, the bottom line is that the city has a relatively stable revenue base of $51 million but expenditures of around $58 million. That shortfall will have to be addressed at some point, Geldert said.
“We have to have a balanced budget,” Johnson said. “We’ve reduced expenditures by $8 million over the course of this last year, so we’ll have to find more ways to become efficient or we may have to do service level reductions.”
“(I) don’t see any light at the end of this,” Councilman Frank Lopez said. “We need to continue to be tough and tighten up that belt.”