Completing an ironman triathlon is said to be one of the most grueling experiences a human being can endure. Right behind it, apparently, is balancing the Walnut Creek budget.
Council members chewed on one-time revenues, cost recovery fees, service reductions and program cuts until their gums were sore Tuesday night, but their most noteworthy agreement after a 3½-hour discussion was to postpone the decision-making until next week.
The problem, simply stated, is a $4.4 million general fund shortfall over the next budget's two-year cycle. That takes care of everything about the problem that's simple.
Principles and personalities collided over alternative remedies. Should the city tap into a one-time, $5 million development fee for renovations at Broadway Plaza? Should the council utilize $1 million in anticipated new parking revenues? Should it charge more for services? Should it dip into its reserves? Cut programs? Curtail arts, cultural and recreation funding?
In the end, there was a lot of talk and no agreement.
This was never expected to be easy; few recent budget resolutions have been. Councilwoman Cindy Silva recalled trimming $20 million from the 2010 budget and more than that in 2012.
"Here we are again," she said.
This time seemed different, though, because positions kept shifting.
Mayor Kristina Lawson and Councilman Justin Wedel envisioned the Broadway Plaza funds as an answer to a prayer. Mayor Pro Tem Bob Simmons and Councilwomen Loella Haskew and Silva were resolutely opposed. One-time funds are for one-time projects, not for operations, they said.
Much later in the discussion, Simmons allowed that perhaps $1 million of those funds could be used to avoid making service program cuts. Then Wedel suddenly reversed his stance on one-time revenues because the "council majority" had decided against it. The mayor, who thought she smelled a compromise, nearly fell off her chair.
Every council member acknowledged that Walnut Creek faces a structural deficit, and they all know that means cutting expenses. But when the time came for recommending cuts, an eerie silence filled the room.
Perhaps funding for winter swimming facilities could end, Silva finally offered. Eliminate the In a Nutshell newsletter, Simmons said. Haskew said trimming services is the hardest part of the job -- so hard, in fact, she couldn't recommend any.
Piecemeal solutions were plucked from far corners of the room. Maybe the $l million per year for asset management and information technology projects could be reduced by half. Perhaps $400,000 per year for school resource officers could be paid from one-time revenues. What about dipping into the $10 million general fund reserves? Expect all of these ideas to resurface in days to come.
It made for entertaining theater, as an attentive crowd attested. Nearly all of the 80 or so persons in attendance remained until the discussion ended. Several of them expressed their views earlier during public comment.
They offered some suggestions that contradicted nicely: (1) Fix the budget deficit with current funds; (2) don't cut anything that we like; (3) use one-time revenues appropriately; and (4) leave one-time revenues untouched.
Maybe those folks should think about running for council.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.