Ojai eyes reserves for budget
By Jesse Phelps
The Ojai city budget is balanced
for the time being, but dire projections for the coming year
have the eyes of City Council fixed firmly on reserve money.
At the council meeting Tuesday night, City Manager Dan Singer
presented a preliminary budget for the coming year, balanced
only with the help of reserves set aside in fatter times. He
said that Ojai is in a "stable financial position"
this year despite hardships brought on by the state-level budget
crisis and a loss of local transient occupancy tax revenue due
to the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa expansion and remodeling, which
reduces the number of rooms, and subsequent bed-tax revenues,
by more than two-thirds.
According to Singer, 2002-2003 fiscal year revenue should add
up to just under $5.8 million while expenditures total around
$5.7 million. The losses from the Inn expansion were offset,
according to Singer, from unanticipated savings and property
tax revenues generated by a strong housing market.
Singer came prepared with a list of potential budget cuts to
help offset the losses expected in the coming year and asked
that council members make recommendations so he could present
a final budget for the coming year to be adopted at the June
24 council meeting.
Among the proposed cuts were a $25,000 per year earthquake insurance
policy on public buildings; the removal of deputy Tom Triplett,
Ojai's motorcycle officer; reductions in departmental budgets;
the postponement of cost of living adjustment benefits for staffers;
holding off on Web site improvements for the city; limiting training
for council members and staff; and reductions in funding for
special programs such as the youth commission, Ojai Day, the
museum and the Visitor's Bureau.
"To help balance the General Fund budget," Singer said,
"staff is recommending the one-time use of $800,000 from
reserves. This amount is determined by the expected loss in transient
occupancy tax and sales tax revenues associated with the inn
project, versus trend projections for the next fiscal year."
Initial discussion was intense. None of the council members seemed
enamored of the idea of losing Triplett, so it seems valley residents
will still need to be extra-cautious about speeding on County
Club Drive and Cuyama Road.
The various department heads and representatives of the museum
and other programs on the chopping block made statements aimed
to forestall the axe falling in their directions, and then it
was up to the council to weigh in.
Mayor Pro-Tem Sue Horgan expressed displeasure at the idea of
using reserves and said she "fundamentally disagrees"
with some of Singer's accounting methodology. She stressed that
the council should be more fiscally conservative and use only
$625,000 of its reserves.
"I don't think it would be fiscally prudent to use reserves
to backfill any shortfalls besides the one from the Inn expansion,"
said Horgan, who urged further budget cuts rather than dipping
too far into reserve money.
Horgan's choices for the axe? She suggested taking "a very
hard look" at parks and recreation and the museum, while
she went to bat for the Visitor's Bureau.
Council member David Bury introduced his concept of "spread
the pain." In favor of using reserves, Bury said he wasn't
happy with the idea of cutting the employee COLA or training
Councilwoman Rae Hanstad also expressed a desire to keep "core
services and programs with discernable results" in place.
She suggested cutting the Web site, an idea Mayor Joe DeVito
was definitely not thrilled with, the earthquake insurance and
programs with less obvious benefits.
In the end, little was decided. Singer and the finance committee,
with council recommendations in hand, will go back to the drawing
board to prepare a final budget. And the evening's economics
class, thankfully, was balanced this night by more uplifting
Local poet and teacher Joan Raymund was officially chosen as
Ojai's poet laureate, a first for Ventura County. Raymund, known
for her acerbic, straight-forward style and her generosity, was
chosen by the Arts Commission for the honor and their choice
was scheduled to be ratified by council as part of its consent
Council, however, elected to reprioritize her selection as a
discussion item, allowing a number of speakers to discuss Raymund's
impact on the local community. Leonard Klaif, representing the
Art Center, Thanked Raymund for her generous support, saying,
"For years, she kept the Art Center open." In addition
to publishing Rivertalk, Ojai's own yearly poetry compilation,
Raymund teaches classes at the Art Center and has been known
to make generous contributions to the arts.
Maudette Finck, chairperson of the Arts Commission, echoed Klaif's
statements, saying, "It couldn't have gone to a better person."
Horgan, who for many years worked with Raymund on the Art Center
board, said she was very proud of the Arts Commission for choosing
her. "She's a master teacher," said Horgan, "And
fully deserving of the award."
While Raymund was the woman of the hour, council also took time
to recognize some of Ojai's citizens of the future. Five local
students, Alexis Kenyon, Rachel Lurie, Leticia Ortiz, Jason Rapp,
and Mae Waugh received congressional award medals for outstanding
achievement in academics and physical fitness and service to
Mayor Joe DeVito hailed the students, saying, "These young
people are going to be the leaders of tomorrow. Hopefully,"
DeVito continued, gesturing to the photos of council-members
past, "We'll see some of your pictures up here one day."
With the fun out of the way, DeVito excused the youngsters so
council could get down to the usual nitty-gritty affairs of running
a city, such as discussion and approval for changes to Ojai's
Council looked at the changes recently made by planning and tweaked
some things of its own, the most important being that new second
dwelling units will not have to match or mirror existing units,
merely "complement" them.
Nevertheless, said community development director Robert Casias,
"It's not going to be any easier for the public to put in
a second unit than it already is. In fact, it'll be a little
more difficult. The only saving grace is that they'll be saved
the expense of a public hearing."
The Ojai Valley News
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