Less than 18 months after voters passed a half-cent sales tax in November 2011 with Measure O to solidify public safety service and staffing levels, City Manager Bryan Whitemyer is proposing discarding those promises in an effort to balance the budget.
At the Monday, June 3 Oakdale City Council meeting, Whitemyer presented his proposed annual budget for the 2013-2014 Fiscal Year. Proposed cuts to the budget included not filling two vacant police officer positions, eliminating a vacant firefighter position and laying off two firefighters currently serving the city.
“The City of Oakdale has found itself in a bad place,” Whitemyer said after showing charts and graphs of up and down tax revenues over the last 10 years. “Essentially, we don’t have the money to pay for anything. It is a necessity for our survival to move forward.”
In addition to the public safety cuts to his cost savings summary, Whitemyer also said the human resource analyst and recreation coordinator positions would have to be eliminated to deal with a $1 million deficit in the general fund.
“This isn’t Bryan’s data,” Whitemyer said in his defense. “This is put together by a third party.”
Whitemyer revealed the city’s $10.4 million in future financial obligations consisting of past employee benefits, PERS obligations, the general plan study, and the Willowood Fire Station bond. He advised setting aside funds for those obligations.
“It’s prudent financial practice to acknowledge every debt and obligation,” Whitemyer said. “We’re the proverbial home that needs to refinance but can’t refinance because our finances aren’t in order.”
The hit to public safety did not sit well with those in the audience that addressed the council.
Frank Clark, one of the co-chairs of the Measure O committee, spoke even before Whitemyer’s presentation and reminded city leaders that Measure O was passed on the promise that 2011 public safety levels would be maintained during its three-year period.
Clark stated that the city was currently violating the principles of the statute by not filling vacant police and fire positions that had been frozen by Whitemyer.
“We were told there would be no reduction in staffing levels if this measure was passed,” Clark said.
Clark read a paragraph from the measure which stated, “Voting Yes on Measure O will ensure that Oakdale has the funds to maintain the level of service that we all expect in our community.”
Retired Modesto Firefighter Don Lyman, who sits on the Measure O Oversight Committee, talked about the hazards of cutting fire personnel as well as that those who volunteered and supported the sales tax increase did so believing the funds would be spent in the places they were told the funds would be spent.
Oakdale Firefighters Association President Dave Peterson also said he campaigned for Measure O because the half-cent sales tax increase was to save public safety jobs.
Peterson also said the department would be operating daily at minimum staffing and every time a firefighter was sick, injured, or on vacation would result in overtime, quickly burning off the $199,000 amount set aside for overtime compensation in the budget.
“Let Measure O accomplish what you promised the community it would accomplish,” Peterson said.
Retired Fire Chief Mike Botto, who also stood in as city manager when Steve Hallam was fired in 2011, addressed the council recalling that when the 2011 budget was adopted there was proposed firefighter and police layoffs. The purpose of Measure O was so that current levels would be maintained without affecting public safety with decreased staffing and manpower.
Botto agreed that the proposed $199,000 would not be sufficient with the cuts since it would leave Oakdale with only 12 remaining firefighters.
Botto said the cuts would compromise the safety of personnel and the public as fires would get out of hand and responding personnel would not be able to handle critical incidents with existing staffing.
Both Councilman Farrell Jackson and Tom Dunlop responded to the community fury of the possibility of ‘not kept’ promises. Mayor Pat Paul and Councilman Tom Brennan, who supported Measure O, remained silent on the subject.
Jackson said he believed the council’s “number one priority” was to provide public safety.
“The citizens told us what they want in levels set by Measure O,” Jackson said. “I’m not willing to reduce staffing.”
Dunlop said he wanted to point out that he was the lone councilman at the time that didn’t sign on for Measure O, but still believed public safety had to be a priority. Dunlop pondered out loud other options that weren’t as “aggressive.”
“I’ve heard the issues against what I presented, but what are the other options?” Whitemeyer asked. “Right now I have no idea what it is.”
“We have to balance the stark reality presented by the city manager with the public trust of Measure O,” Dunlop said.