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Rainy Day Woes State Budget Impacts Felt
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From the fire department to the city to local schools, the California budget problems are continuing to have far-reaching effects, and local officials aren't optimistic about the chances for a better fiscal picture next year.

Though the legislature agreed on a budget, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger then took his line item veto pen and enacted some additional cuts and dug into some areas for funds normally reserved for cities and special districts.

Escalon City Council members, at their regular meeting on Monday night, Aug. 3, put on hold some proposed revisions to the 2009-2010 city budget reflecting changes due to the state budget, including the loss of $137,000 in city property tax through Prop. 1A. That proposition, also referred to by the state as its 'rainy day fund' allows the state to borrow eight percent of the city's property tax revenues. It is supposed to be paid back, with interest, in fiscal year 2012-2013. Sill, the loss of even more revenue will make it that much harder for the city.

City Manager Greg Greeson also said the city is currently in escrow to sell surplus property that would bring in about $168,000 this year and, with the council earlier opting out of drilling a new city well this year, other Capital Improvement Program projects are being considered.

Council members did not adopt the resolution offered but instead put it on hold and asked Greeson to come back to them after taking one more look at existing programs, services and personnel.

"The council tabled it, and requested me to take a look at all departments," Greeson said.

With business in some areas slow because of the downturn in the economy, Greeson said that 'look' will include meeting with all department heads on an individual basis to see if there are any areas where additional cutbacks can be made. That could range from combining positions to eliminating positions to seeing if there is anyone eligible for early retirement.

The next regular council meeting is Aug. 17 but Greeson said there won't be any recommendation by that time; rather, a special meeting could be called in between that August meeting and the first meeting in September to address the issue.

Meanwhile, the Escalon Consolidated Fire Protection District is also working to come to terms with the loss of revenue through the state's Prop. 1A take.

"We were certainly hoping it wouldn't happen," Escalon Fire Chief Rick Mello said of the state - via the Governor - coming in to take the property tax revenue.

The loss to the department is estimated at between $80,000 and $90,000.

"We've built our reserve up over the years," Mello said, noting that the fire board can opt to utilize some of that reserve to make up the shortfall if necessary.

At $375,000 a few years ago, the reserve has been built up to a little over $800,000 now, said Mello.

"Our reserves will hold for a little while," he said.

Mello added that through this calendar year, things should be stable but he and the board will likely have to do a mid-fiscal year review in early 2010 to see where they stand.

"They (state officials) say they'll pay it back in 2013 with interest," Mello said of the property tax revenue. "The scary part is, history has shown once money is taken, it doesn't come back."

Sa Joaquin and Stanislaus counties worked cooperatively to battle against the property tax shift from the local communities to the state, but, fearing the worst, the Escalon fire department had already taken little steps to help itself.

"The air conditioning is turned off in unoccupied areas (of the fire department building) and we keep it at 78 degrees in offices and the dorms," Mello said. "If we keep this (heating/cooling) bill down, we can put that money into other areas ... it's amazing how the small stuff adds up."

Mello said the department is committed to maintaining service to the residents they serve.

"We've worked really hard to get our staffing levels to a point where we're comfortable," he said. "To think that their (residents) fire protection could be affected because somebody takes their money ... this is just not a good time for California."

Escalon Unified School District Superintendent Dave Mantooth said officials there watched the state budget battle with keen interest, since it also impacts the school.

"It was pretty similar to what we expected at the May revise," Mantooth noted of the final budget package. "The overall effect is about the same."

The good news for the district, he said, is that with some federal stimulus money, they have been able to "make some type of position" for all the teachers that were previously served with layoff notices. A total of 10 teachers got the heads up in March about the possibility and those came through formally in May.

Now, all 10 have been able to be recalled, though some under different circumstances.

"These are one year positions, we have told them that and we will have to reconsider them next year," Mantooth said.

Seven of the 10 will be able to come back full-time, at 100 percent, while the other three posts will be part-time, ranging from 40 percent to 67 percent time.

"We'll make it through this year but I'll be asking all my department managers to look at every single line item in the budget," Mantooth said of sharpening their own pencils for an anticipated tough 2010-2011 fiscal year to come.