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City Look Finances Still Center Stage
Hoping they've "got a handle" on the budget and pledging to continue careful monitoring, Escalon City Manager Henry Hesling said the picture is getting better but tough economic times are still ahead.

Looking back on 2010, Hesling said the city was able to make some accomplishments and more work is ahead for 2011.

Highlights for the calendar year 2010, said Hesling, included a number of paving projects completed, the police department marking its first year in its new McHenry Avenue facility, the completion of a feasibility study for a redevelopment agency - slated for presentation to the city council next month - and receipt of a grant for putting another police officer on the streets.

"We also did a special events ordinance," Hesling said.

That ordinance is designed to help the city recoup its costs for assisting in special events, though still being discussed is the fee structure, so local non-profit groups and service organizations aren't overburdened with high costs to host a community gathering.

Residents can now also pay their water and sewer bill online, making it more convenient.

"We're working on our website to make it more user friendly," added Hesling. "We've also consolidated the (staff) furlough days to the third Friday of the month."

The consolidation means City Hall and other associated city offices are all closed at the same time, rather than having city staff members sporadically be off for the furlough.

"We're constantly looking at the delivery of services to people," Hesling said, noting that the city is working to become more efficient. He offered praise for employees, who he said have continued to be responsive to the community and worked well with the city on contract negotiations, recognizing the need to do more with less.

Financially, the city has seen its reserve dip a little but Hesling said they have been able to maintain a healthy reserve, unlike some neighboring cities that have had to use reserves just to meet obligations. Still, officials will be keeping a close eye on the bottom line through the end of the fiscal year in June.

"We also have a new governor and we don't know what he's going to do," admitted Hesling.

Uncertain if taxes will be on the rise or if the state will continue to go after funds that used to be dedicated solely to localities under Governor Jerry Brown makes it difficult for local officials to plan for the future.

Hesling said at mid fiscal year, the city is holding its own but has to tread lightly. No major projects are in the offing for the final six months of the fiscal year, but the city will have to look at one that is in limbo.

"We've got a building sitting over there (on McHenry Avenue) that's a shell, what does the council want to do with that?" Hesling asked rhetorically.

Escalon purchased two buildings, at 2040 and 2060 McHenry, with the 2040 site developed and, for the past year-plus, housing the police and recreation departments. The 2060 site has just the shell of a building, with initial hopes putting that as the new City Hall and council chambers. But the economic climate has not allowed for any construction or getting much further than the architectural renderings of what the building could be.

"Maybe they need to revise that," Hesling said of plans.

Council meets for regular sessions in the Ekholm Room of the library, the old police department facility at 1855 Coley has been renovated to bring planning, building and engineering together in one location, and city hall staff remains situated in offices at 1854 Main, which will be fine for now, but doesn't allow much room for expansion.

"We could stay here for several more years," Hesling agreed, "but you've got to make sure you have a plan, so you know how you want to proceed."

On the brighter side, Hesling said he's pleased that work is being done at the former Friendly Chevrolet location on McHenry, with a used car dealership approved for the site, expected to open in early 2011.

"They came to us about six months ago," Hesling said of the partners, noting the used car lot can bring in needed tax revenue and hopefully is the first of what will be a number of new business ventures coming to in this year.

The city has also made headway in being part of the county's Enterprise Zone to help create a more business-friendly climate and Hesling said housekeeping items such as getting the housing element in place and the general plan updated were notable accomplishments for 2010 as well.

"We still have some widening work on McHenry to come, through the Measure K funds, and we are still looking at the Brennan and Highway 120 intersection for signal lights," Hesling said.

The latter project is being done in conjunction with Caltrans so the timeline is uncertain.

Hesling said he is looking forward to working with the council, which includes first time councilman Robert Swift, elected in November, and new mayor Danny Fox.

"Our council is pretty stable, there's a lot of knowledge there and that's important," said Hesling. "They've got the feel of the community."

The city manager, who is under contract through the end of the fiscal year, said he wants to be optimistic but also has to weigh that with the economic realities the city - and the majority of other communities across the state - are facing.

"I'm not going to put myself in a place to be so optimistic that I'm my own worst enemy," he said.

Goals are simple, he added, and include maintaining services at the top of the list.

"I think the public knows we're doing the best job we can," Hesling said.