Our cities are facing the most difficult financial crisis in decades due to COVID-19. City councils face hard decisions. How deep can they cut budgets without paralyzing basic public services? Furlough part-time workers? Reduce salaries among management and other full-time employees? Buy new police cars or maintain public parks and recreation facilities? Continue generous, but unfunded, pension plans, or defer planned payments to the Public Safety Pension Stabilization Fund? Ask employees to forego contractual increases in salary, or endure workforce cuts?
Three things are certain: cuts are painful, they will ultimately be deep, and no department can be spared. Spending in all departments needs a rigorous, impartial and thoughtful review, with equitable reductions that still provide needed services.
Though public safety is a primary concern, the budget also needs to secure other key services that impact our quality of life in Healdsburg. Achieving reductions, while still preserving what is best about Healdsburg, requires a collaborative approach among the City Council, the City Manager and all department heads.
How can a more satisfying outcome be achieved?
City council should ask each department to provide a plan to reduce their budget by a fixed percentage (e.g., 20%) and explain how such a cut would impact services. Depending on how impacted tourism is, we may not need to cut this deeply. But such planning gives the City Council alternatives and options to achieve a fair and effective budget that continues to serve the community. It also provides the City Manager a roadmap for a monthly budget review as we move into 2020-21.
But the proposed budget numbers presented to the city council on May 11, 2020 show a very different and uneven approach. When we compare the current fiscal year (FY) with the coming two years 2020-21 and 2021-22, we see that several General Fund departments are increasing their budgets, despite substantially lower revenues. As an example, Finance is increasing 4.6% in 2021 and 6.2% in 2022 and Planning and Building is growing by 9.8% in 2022. The reductions for the city manager’s function are “soft savings” from approved, but never filled, positions and don’t go deep enough. At the same time, other departments are facing hard cuts that in some cases are already having dramatic, negative impacts. We hope the city council comes up with alternative funding for Public Works and Community Services/Parks and Recreation, possibly by transferring revenue from the General Fund departments. Healdsburg needs these services more than ever.
While we can’t have it all, we need a balanced approach. The city council should view the current remit of the designated interim city manager liberally and involve him in finalizing the budget. He will inherit the work of the outgoing city manager and should actively participate in the last round of budget deliberations along with all department heads. Budget items in Measure V funding, such as equipment replacement, pavement rehabilitation and funding for the chamber of commerce, need to be part of the equation, as the city decides what level of services it will provide.
The next few years will be a period of significant belt-tightening, even though the budget analysis presented to the city council paints a rosy portrait of rapid recovery for our tourism-based economy. While easing the burden for the Council, considering only a single scenario leaves them ill-prepared if there is a spike in COVID-19 or a prolonged recessionary period. During this uncertainty we need strong teamwork, creativity and collaboration within the government — and with citizens — to best serve the community.
Healdsburg 2040 is a group of interested citizens advising the city on the implementation of the SDAT report. The group is made up of four individual work groups, addressing arts and culture, housing, the General Plan and parks and connectivity. For a list of the members of Healdsburg 2040, visit healdsburg2040.org. The group can be reached at Healdsburg2040@sonic.net.