Important meeting, tough choices
On Thursday, June 2, the Sonoma City Council will hold what could well be its most important meeting of the year.
It may also be - if the past is any guide - one of the most boring meetings of the year. It's about the budget and you should be there.
Confronted with a third year of recession revenues, and simultaneously attempting to continue surfing a standing wave of fiscal uncertainty while the California Legislature dithers endlessly about how to balance its own budget, the City Council will have to make some hard decisions about a projected $170,000 deficit.
The essential decisions boil down to these:
First, whether to continue providing $140,000 worth of grants to the so-called "Tear 1" nonprofits currently offering key services that other cities typically cover through parks and recreation departments. Recipient agencies are the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sonoma Valley which got $58,000 last year, the Sonoma Community Center ($30,000), the Sonoma Ecology Center ($22,000), and Vintage House senior center ($30,000).
All four agencies have requests for the same amounts in the 2011-12 fiscal year, which begins July 1.
Next, the city may have to decide if it needs to reduce funding levels to its core recreational and community programs, including those provided by the big four nonprofits.
And from there on, budget balancing gets closer to the bone. The city has already cut general fund expenditures by 12 percent over the last two years while freezing service levels and leaving several staff positions vacant. City staff report that core revenues from property taxes, sales tax and Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) have bottomed out and are slowly beginning to recover, with the greatest increase coming from TOT.
Meanwhile, because the state budget process keeps dragging along, a $100,000 annual grant to support the police department's community service officer program remains in doubt. The city currently has two CSOs providing a wide range of important services, including animal control and parking regulation. The parking tickets they write bring in about $40,000 a year.
One source of untapped city revenue could be a 2 percent increase in the TOT, which would generate an estimated $440,000 over the course of the year. The city has long looked at a future TOT increase as a kind of reserve fund if things get really tight. But there are currently competing proposals for such an increase, including one from a group of hotel owners who have suggested creation of a Tourism Improvement District funded by a 2 percent TOT increase.
Alternatively, the city has prepared a list of "non-core/non-essential" services and programs that could be cut to save money, including reduction in the visitors bureau marketing program; elimination of membership and sponsorship fees for such programs as Cittaslow, and reducing or eliminating subsidies to special events like Jazz Plus.
Tough choices lie ahead for the council, which will meet in the emergency services room at the back of the police station at 6 p.m. Concerned citizens might want to attend.