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Council Adopts City Budget By 3-2 Vote
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On a split vote, members of the Escalon City Council approved the proposed spending plan for 2009-2010 on Monday night, after a modification that left the budget skidding through by a 3-2 margin.

Councilman Ed Alves made the motion to approve the budget after shelving a $1.7 million expenditure for City Well No. 11, which would be put in at the site of the future Liberty Business Park on the city's west side but utilized for the entire community.

Alves agreed in principle with community residents Scott Mitchell and Nick Bavaro, who voiced their opinions that putting in the well now was unnecessary. Alves, along with Mayor Pro Tem Danny Fox and councilman Jeff Laugero, voted in favor of adopting the budget with the well project put on hold. Mayor Walt Murken and councilman Gary Haskin objected, on the basis that delaying the well project will cost the city money. Funds for engineering fees and other prep work that would have come in to the city for the project will now not be available, a move that will require the use of additional reserve money to make up the budget deficit.

Prior to removing the well from the budget, the deficit was roughly $108,000 and the council had agreed to use reserve funds to bridge the gap. Now, with the loss of funds by putting the project on hold, the gap will be somewhere in the neighborhood of $320,000.

Murken and Haskin said since the $1.7 million is available in the water enterprise fund and can't be used for any other purpose, it makes sense to proceed with the project.

"We have the money set aside, our city engineer has told us we need this," Haskin pointed out. "I see no reason why not to go forward with it."

Alves, Laugero and Fox disagreed, citing concerns about costs in future years, specifically for adding the pipeline that will connect the new well to the rest of the city system.

While there is money in the enterprise fund, the use of $1.7 million will leave only about $250,000 in that fund. With costs for pipeline work the following year estimated at $1.5 million, Alves, Laugero and Fox said their concerns about where that money would come from prompted the decision to take the well project off the table.

"Nobody's got a crystal ball," Alves said. "I think it's wiser for us to be a little more conservative."

The well was just one area of lingering concern with the budget. There are pay and benefit cuts across the board, along with furlough days, to help make up the budget deficit.

And prior to the budget hearing itself, council members unanimously approved the unilateral implementation of the "Last, Best and Final" offer made to the Escalon Police Officers Association.

The city declared an impasse in contract negotiations with the EPOA on July 15. At issue for the POA were items including schedule changes, a move to a new health plan, and loss of employees through not filling vacant positions in the department.

Taking the podium to speak on behalf of the POA was association secretary/treasurer Dustin Brookshire, accompanied by president Gustavo Flores.

"Our police department is busier than ever," Brookshire said, noting that 10 years ago there were nine officers and now there are 10, adding just one more officer over that time period while incidents increased from 7,051 in 1999 to 12,187 for 2008.

Failure to fill some vacant positions, Brookshire added, basically amounts to what the POA considers layoffs within the department, and said that could have a negative impact on service, with fewer personnel on the street and officers having to devote some time to cleaning the animal shelter on the weekends.

Noting that the POA "asked for nothing" in the contract negotiations, Brookshire said he felt they had "bargained in good faith" but felt a bit blindsided with a change from a four-day, 10-hour shift schedule to five-day, eight hours along with a change in the health insurance plan, with an 80-20 city-POA contribution schedule.

"We challenge you to work with us," Brookshire said, noting that the POA is seeking a 90-10 percent split in the health insurance, which he said would only amount to a $5,000 additional cost to the city for all its employees, not just the POA members.

That's something that could easily be accomplished, Brookshire said.

"If the city council would accept a pay cut, like you have asked all of us to do ..." he suggested.

Councilman Alves assured Brookshire and the many police department employees and supporters in attendance that the work is not done. There can still be negotiations, but he said the implementation of the offer by the council is a further sign of the times.

"As bad as it is, it's going to get worse," he said. "We're trying to do what we can to keep everything afloat."

Ramifications of the state budget are still not clear, with City Manager Greg Greeson noting that additional city revenue could be in jeopardy through a state 'take' of funds including property tax and highway user fees.

And even though the council unanimously approved unilaterally implementing the offer made to POA members, Greeson said it was not an easy decision.

"I want to thank Dusty and Gus for presenting their case in such a professional way," he said Monday night after the two officers left the podium. "Without a doubt, this is the toughest budget we've ever wrestled to put together."

Greeson again reiterated his thanks to the department heads for their fiscal responsibility and willingness to keep to a bare bones budget.

"They looked in places I never thought possible to cut funds," he said, offering additional thanks to first-year Finance Director Tammy Alcantor for her work on the budget.

By the end of the evening, the city had a new budget in place, coming in at $3.1 million. Council members all voiced their appreciation for the work that department heads and city staff did in developing the plan to the best of their ability, a budget that will require using some reserve funds but still keep the city, according to Greeson, on "solid financial footing."

Councilman Haskin termed the budget process this year as "gut wrenching" and said while they might have different ideas of how to get there, he believes the council has the same goal in mind.

"We want to be fiscally responsible," Haskin said.

Disappointed that no changes were made in the POA agreement, Brookshire said he's still hopeful the city will work with them on the health plan and he does accept the fact that this was an unusually tough year.

"We are appreciative that we're keeping as many (employees) as we are," he said. "But we feel we've conceded on every other thing."

Flores said residents can be assured that, despite the unilateral imposition of the agreement, police officers won't let that affect them on the job.

"Every officer is going to continue providing the same level of service," he said.t