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Vista fills $6M gap in budget

VISTA — At a budget workshop March 17, City Council and staff filled a $6.4 million shortfall in the projected $61.8 million 2009-2010 budget brought on by decreasing tax revenues. In a series of hard decisions, the city cut service levels and redirected one-time expenditures in a manner designed to minimize impact on the residents.
“The city has been running lean for the past several years, but this is the first time the city has had to take such drastic steps,” Councilwoman Judy Ritter said. “It’s not fun to be in this business,” she added. “The choices aren’t good. The budget has to balance. We can’t be like the state. Either we have to get more income coming in or cut what’s going out.”
The biggest chunk of shortfall was made up through the transfer of a $2,225,000 settlement from the North County Transit District. It was a reimbursement to the city for taking steps to accommodate public transit systems, such as the new Sprinter rail line.
Council also deferred a $1 million outlay for increased landscaping along the Highway 78 corridor, something that wasn’t planned to take place until 2012/2013.
Six open positions at the Sheriff’s Station will go unfilled; none of them are patrol or traffic deputies. The city fire department has been tasked to make nearly $1 million in cuts as well, preferably in ways that won’t cut response times. There will be no new hires for Code Compliance, which means enforcing the recently approved signing ordinance may prove difficult.
Service for city parks was reduced. Bathrooms will be cleaned four times per week instead of seven, and irrigation, fertilization and pruning that do not occur regularly will be spaced further apart. Elections for the city’s Lighting Landscape Maintenance District officers will be conducted by mail ballot to save money.
The level of service for Community Development and Development Services was also reduced, mostly in the form of slowing down building inspection and permit processing. Ritter said the city will rely more on appointments and may institute a fee to expedite permits and inspections. These changes probably will not cause much inconvenience because the economy has slowed development down, City Manager Rita Geldert said.
The city also lowered but did not eliminate its subsidy for instructional classes, sports, facility rentals and recreation activities. Bill Fortmueller, assistant director of public services, said the difference will be made up by raising rates or reducing costs.
“It’s still within a reasonable subsidy level,” Fortmueller said. “I think it’s still good deals on facilities and our programs.”
Many projects were put on hold. The Buena Creek Trail was postponed for at least a year. Vistans ROC, the annual neighborhood cleanup program, was canceled for this year, to be resumed biannually.
“When we get back to a better economy we’ll want to get back to doing it annually again,” Redevelopment Director Bill Rawlings said. “The city is constantly evolving and changing. Everything is aging.”
Not all of the news was bad. Although the $500,000 earmarked for a new skate park was appropriated, the facility will likely be built anyway, with a little creativity. The city had already planned to build a large drainage basin on South Santa Fe Road. The basin would take in waters from a “hundred-year flood,” the sort of deluge that statistically happens once a century. Now, the city plans to build the new skate park inside the basin, if it’s feasible.
“We’re trying to be as efficient as we can,” Bill Rawlings said. “So 99 years out of 100 you could use it as a skate park. It would make a great dual use, we think.”
The city still needs to come up with $425,000 to meet the proposed budget.
“We asked the employees for cost-saving suggestions,” Geldert said. “We’ve had over 150 of them. We’re going to work toward those and see if we can bridge the gap there.