Hemet City Council discusses spending priorities in the 2020-2021 budget

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Diane A. Rhodes, Writer

The most recent Hemet City Council meeting Tuesday, June 9, was sandwiched inside an hourslong work study session regarding the city’s preliminary budget for fiscal year 2020-2021. The discussion resulted in more than 45 public comments about the city’s proposed spending.

A staff report prepared by city manager Christopher Lopez was made available to the public before the meeting and was narrated with visual assists from Lopez during the work study that began about 5:30 p.m. After pausing at 7 p.m. to begin the regular meeting, the session resumed before 8:30 p.m. and lasted until Mayor Russ Brown adjourned the meeting shortly before 10:15 p.m.

Since the greatest source of general fund revenue for the city is sales tax, the restrictions implemented due to COVID-19 led to a detrimental impact on local businesses and local consumer spending habits. The city was already facing fiscal challenges before this setback and the proposed 2020-2021 budget was prepared to try and rectify some of the anticipated budget issues that have plagued the city for years.

“Our expenditures for the current fiscal year remain slightly under budget, due to numerous vacancies across the agency,” Lopez said. “We estimate a shortfall of approximately $1 million for fiscal 2019-2020. This shortfall can be made up by using one-time reserve funding.”

Another factor that has led to reduced revenue is the unemployment rate that reached 18.6% in the city of Hemet for the month of April, based on information from the state Employment Development Department.

“Our community has a significant number of individuals employed in sectors hit particularly hard by the pandemic,” Lopez said in the staff report and reiterated during the work study session.

He said that before COVID-19, the management team was taking an aggressive approach to align expenditures with revenue projected for the next fiscal year. That financial model was presented to the mayor and city council, Jan. 28. It was quickly outdated when the pandemic took hold. That reality required an entire reworking of the budget. All departments and divisions were required to make difficult recommendations and forced to develop a brand-new budget that was vastly different from what had been prepared before the pandemic. Aligning expenditures with COVID-19 revenues required 10% reductions across the board while prioritizing economic development functions.

Councilmember Michael Perciful said the city needs to invest in the departments and divisions that will help Hemet grow and be innovative. Councilmember Bonnie Wright agreed, stating that the Public Works Department needs to do more to maintain the aesthetics of the community.

“If (our city) isn’t reasonably attractive, we aren’t going to have anybody coming here,” Wright said.

Elimination of vacant positions across the agency and grant awards for special events are designed to help meet the proposed budget expenditures.

Mayor Pro Tem Linda Krupa said this is not the time to cut any public safety positions. She suggested finding a way to reduce the expenditures proposed for legal costs.

Lopez said in his staff report that the proposed budget contains reductions that will impact the level of service provided to the community but the cuts are necessary for the city to live within its means and is balanced without the use of any emergency reserves.

“I believe the management team stands by concepts of customer service and ultimate service delivery, but it would be unrealistic and disingenuous to state that the public should expect the level of service that we have provided to the community thus far,” Lopez said.

Councilmember Karlee Meyer agreed with Krupa about seeking alternatives that would keep legal fees down. She also expressed the imperative need for the budget to be revisited monthly and adjusted according to the current climate.

“Funded positions need to be kept filled,” she said. “We need to keep priorities where we said they would be; our community development department gets the most complaints.”

Hemet voters approved Measure U in 2016 which allowed for a one-cent sales tax increase for a period of 10 years to raise money for public safety in the form of police protection and crime prevention services, fire prevention and suppression services, 911/paramedic services and lawful public purposes of the city. In addition to nearly $11 million from Measure U, the city’s proposed general fund expenditures for its police and fire departments exceed $20 million. It was this amount that most residents who made public comments objected to via electronic means. A handful of residents appeared via teleconference and in person to state their concerns about other issues in their city.

Although some complainers used the term “defund” when referring to ways to reduce costs for public safety services, Wright was quick to point out that eliminating vacant positions within the fire and police departments was not “defunding” either one.

“We will be fiscally responsible as we’ve been charged to do,” she commented. “We want to keep as many jobs as possible.”

Several other public comments centered on the uncontrolled prevalence of illegal fireworks throughout the city and the need for more services to combat the ongoing problem. It was felt that public safety services needed to be increased to combat this ongoing problem.

Brown agreed with his colleague’s comments and felt the entire council gave the city staff some good feedback to look at as they move forward.

“It’s an untenable situation we find ourselves in; none of us wanted to be in this position,” he said.

He ended the work study session with the observation that before the pandemic, Hemet was making progress and was on the right path.

“Closing our doors and reducing our customer base had a fiscal impact that is being felt by the city,” Brown said, adding that he can appreciate the reality of the pain everyone is experiencing going through the coronavirus pandemic, but that the council’s decisions have to be reality based “so we can look our constituents in the eye, knowing we are doing the best we can under current circumstances.”

The next city council meeting is scheduled for June 23. For more information, visit http://www.hemetca.gov/65/Mayor-City-Council.

Diane A. Rhodes can be reached by email at valleystaff@reedermedia.com.