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Budget Talks Focus On Simple Goals
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Money - or the lack of it - is front and center for Escalon city officials, with preliminary talks for the 2010-2011 budget under way.

Council members met in a workshop session with Interim City Manager Henry Hesling on March 23, a meeting that also included input from department heads on attainable city goals for the coming year and the start of discussions on a spending plan for the fiscal year ahead.

"We had, pretty much, an exchange of ideas between the council and staff and the department heads were also brought in," explained Hesling.

Part of the session also dealt with setting some goals for the city, but those have been toned down.

"Last year, there were a lot of goals and it was very ambitious," Hesling said. "They set eight goals and six were done."

Among the most significant among them were finalizing the relocation of the police department from its Coley Avenue location to the new facility on McHenry Avenue. Other goals accomplished were a computer upgrade - though some final touches are still being done - and adoption of a housing element.

A water, sewer and storm drain study and a railroad grade separation study were also undertaken during the past fiscal year. Work is also continuing on a change in the city's phone system,

"A couple other goals are ongoing, looking at business strategies and focusing on community oriented policing ...those are 'works in progress' goals," added Hesling.

With the departure of acting City Manager and Police Chief Doug Dunford for the top police post in Livingston earlier this month, Hesling was brought in to serve as Interim City Manager, with his financial savvy one of the points that council members considered when offering the job.

"I'm to take an overall look at the financial situation, building the budget is what I'm here for," Hesling said. "And that's what I'm going to proceed with."

Key to the budget success will be holding the line on costs, which will mean not starting any projects that there isn't money already available for, said Hesling.

"We will do projects we can complete with revenue available during the year," he said. "We won't start any that we can't complete or (don't) have the resources for going in the door."

In other words, Hesling said, if the city can't identify a revenue source that will be available, they won't start a project.

All that aside, he said the city came through its audit well, with reserves still on hand.

"I'm not saying we're in 'survival' mode," he added, but noted that the city will "be cautious" when it comes to developing both the budget and goals.

"We do want to maintain the services we have," he said.

There are also a couple of key positions to fill for the next fiscal year, the City Manager and Police Chief. As Hesling gets the budget finalized, the search will be under way for his successor and the city hopes to have someone in the post within a few months. The new City Manager, then, would be responsible for heading up the search for a new Police Chief, with the goal of having that person in place by the end of the calendar year. Interim chief Jim Shaw said his goal is also to maintain services and focus on the community orienting policing by the department, as well as being proactive in terms of crime fighting.

"We'll make the best conservative predictions we can," Hesling said of preparing the budget. "I wanted the department heads to start working on their budgets ... we can prepare it, put it together and then the council responds to that."

Hesling, the department heads and Finance Director Tammy Alcantor will be busy over the next several weeks developing the proposal. A May revise of the state budget will also likely impact the plan.

"The hardest part is that a lot of revenues come from sources we can't control, property tax, sales tax," Hesling said. "The budget is a working document, not a concrete piece of paper and it's got to be flexible, we've got to adjust with what revenues and expenditures are coming in."

While the city does have some reserves, Hesling said they won't have a firm idea of whether they will end the current fiscal year with a surplus in the 2009-2010 budget until the year is over. They will get a nine-month look at where they stand in terms of expenditures vs. revenues at the end of this month.

Hesling said regardless of the type of revenue the city has to work with and how many goals may be set, the approach is the same.

"The same amount of focus goes on when you have bad times and good times," he said. "We're in the bad times right now but you can't make decisions based on 'the sky is falling' mentality. That's self-defeating.

"You have the ability to look at solutions. You can solve any problem as long as you know what the risks and rewards are."