This month and in early February, city managers and finance directors in cities across San Diego County are appearing before their respective city councils to report significant budget deficits. Of the county’s 18 municipalities, 14 are reporting budgetary shortfalls, 9 of those in the millions.
The 9 cities reporting the most substantial budget shortfalls are Poway, $1.2 million; Vista, $2 million; National City, $3 million; San Marcos, $3.3 million; La Mesa, $4 million; Chula Vista, $4 million; El Cajon, $6 million; Escondido, $7.4 million; and San Diego, $43 million.
The general funds for these cities depend on revenues from sales taxes and property taxes, as well as on other revenues such as hotel taxes, service charges, permits, fines, and fees charged by each city. As revenues continue to go down, deficits across the county go up.
Nearly 40 percent of Escondido’s revenue has come from sales taxes in recent years. Due to slumping sales at the city’s 17 car dealerships and three home improvement centers, revenues going into the general fund are shrinking. Adopting a budget last June with a $1.7 million imbalance didn’t help. Since then, the deficit has soared to $7.4 million.
“For this fiscal year, we projected our sales tax revenue to come in flat,” says Escondido’s finance director, Gil Rojas. “We thought there would be no growth in revenues. And then the last quarterly sales tax report showed negative 7 percent growth from a year ago, which was 5 percent down from the year before. So, you’re really talking a minus 12 or 13 percent decrease over the last two years.”
Like many other cities in the county, Escondido didn’t expect the decline in sales tax revenues to continue. When revenues decreased, the city relied on money from the reserves to make up for the loss of income.
“One of the reasons for using the reserves is it takes out the ebbs and flows,” explains Rojas. “You don’t want to cut the budget one year because of a downturn and then the next year you have to add to the budget because the economy swings up; using the reserves straightens the curves out. But what we realized four months after adopting the budget is that this is not a regional event; this is a worldwide recession.”
To help fix the gap and limit further dipping into the city’s dwindling reserves, last Wednesday the city council approved cuts that shorten library hours and affect benefits and staffing in the police and fire departments. Over 200 city employees agreed to a pay reduction. Even with the cuts, the city still projects a $3.3 million shortfall this fiscal year.
Things aren’t much better in the city to the west of Escondido. In San Marcos, declining revenues in a number of categories are the reason for a projected $3.3 million deficit for this current fiscal year. The city’s finance director, Liliane Serio, says 27 percent of the city’s revenues come from sales tax. Halfway through this fiscal year, there’s been a 9 percent decrease in sales tax — amounting to a $2.1 million loss — a shortage of $316,000 in motor vehicle license fees, and a shortage of $290,000 in property taxes (expected to reach $650,000 by the end of the fiscal year). If revenues continue on this path, over the next three years, the city could face an ongoing deficit of $4 million.
So far, city administrators in San Marcos have frozen spending for software and vehicles and have eliminated several nonessential full-time positions, but they have yet to make reductions to public safety positions.
To the west, in Vista, the city’s financial standing is better, although due to a reduction in property and sales tax revenues, the city’s deficit continues to grow. Vista’s general fund now relies on sales taxes for 29 percent of its revenues and on property taxes for 26 percent. According to finance director Tom Gardner, the city has a $2 to $3 million shortfall, $700,000 coming from sales tax shortages. Vista has not had to cut any services, says Gardner, but it has limited hiring for vacant positions.
However, for some municipalities, there is more to the deficits than just a loss of revenue. Six of the nine cities with substantial budget shortfalls report having structural deficits — meaning expenditures are exceeding revenues on an ongoing basis. Those cities are San Diego, Poway, El Cajon, La Mesa, National City, and Chula Vista.
The City of San Diego had by far the largest midyear deficit, at $43 million. In December, the city council begrudgingly approved nearly $23 million in budget cuts; it postponed hiring and increased fees. The measures, however, are a short-term solution.
During the past five fiscal years, the City of San Diego has reduced its budget by $160 million, and yet the city faces a $54 million deficit for next fiscal year.
This coming April, when next year’s budget discussions begin, Mayor Jerry Sanders says he will propose a 15 percent cut to all departments as well as revisit his proposal to close eight libraries and nine recreation centers.
Considering that 32 percent of Poway’s general fund comes from sales taxes and 24 percent from property tax revenues, it didn’t take long for that city’s balanced budget to go lopsided. Since the beginning of the fiscal year, the city has reduced its workforce by 7 percent. According to Rod Gould, Poway’s city manager, back in September cuts totaling $1.2 million were made in every department. But the deficit is growing. Gould is scheduled to propose an additional $1.3 million worth of cuts to the city council this week to address the city’s ongoing structural deficit, which for next fiscal year is estimated at just under $1 million, followed by a $1.3 million shortfall for the following year.
In El Cajon, assistant city manager and financial director Mike Shelton says that during the past four years El Cajon’s been in the throes of a “financial crisis.” The budget was adopted last June with a $3 million imbalance. And now, with revenues from sales and gas taxes trickling in 6 to 8 percent lower than projected, the city is faced with a $6 million shortfall.
The only way to address a deficit that size is by scaling down staffing, something the city can’t do without sacrificing public safety. Over the past four fiscal years, the City of El Cajon has cut 56 full-time positions, an overall 12 percent reduction in the city’s workforce.
A similar financial crisis is occurring in La Mesa. In last year’s six-year financial forecast an ongoing annual shortfall of $4 million was projected. The city adopted this fiscal year’s budget with an imbalance of $2.3 million.
Gary Ameling, director of administrative services, says the city’s been trying to address its structural deficit by streamlining government and eliminating dozens of nonsafety positions. Despite a growth in population, staffing is now at 1990 levels. The city implemented a new staffing model for the fire department and began contracting out city services.
Relief for both La Mesa and El Cajon came last November when residents approved increases in the sales tax: a three-quarter percent increase in La Mesa, raising the tax to 8.5 percent, and a one-half percent increase in El Cajon, where the sales tax is now 8.75 percent.
An increase in the sales tax, however, may not be enough to meet current economic challenges. Despite passing a 1 percent sales tax increase in 2006, which has brought in approximately $8.5 million annually, National City projects a $3 million deficit for this fiscal year. A decreasing demand for lumber has impacted the city’s largest single revenue generator, Dixieline Lumber, and the drop in car purchases has hurt sales tax revenues generated by National City’s Mile of Cars.
In the next fiscal year, when most city employees will have salary increases, the city’s structural deficit is expected to rise to nearly $7 million. However, the revenues from the sales tax increase have contributed to growing National City’s general fund reserves to $9 million.
“The sales tax increase has temporarily solved the structural deficit,” says Chris Zapata, city manager for National City. “But we understand that we need some new sources of revenue or we need to cut some spending, so we’re trying to do both at this time. It’s going to mean more belt-tightening for next year.”
Chula Vista, the second-largest municipality in the county, has a severe structural deficit. This fiscal year, the city used onetime funds to trim $5 million from its original $9 million deficit. But in fiscal year 2010, because of fewer development fees, the reduction in property and sales tax revenues, and 4 percent raises for city employees beginning in January 2009 and January 2010, the projected shortfall is $20 million.
“For us, it’s a structural issue,” says assistant city manager Scott Tulloch. “We expect this $20 million shortfall is going to go on for three or four years. It’s not just a onetime hiccup where we can look at a onetime solution. We need to look at restructuring government so that we can count on $20 million a year less cost, going on for several years.”
Last year, as part of the city’s restructuring effort, 165 of 1200 full-time positions were cut from the budget. This coming year another 135 positions are targeted.
“You’re talking about a fourth of the city’s workforce will be gone,” says Tulloch. “It will have a tremendous impact on the city’s ability to provide public services. Last year we didn’t touch public safety — police and fire — but this year, we think everybody’s going to have to give something.”
To avoid more cuts to essential city services, this week the Chula Vista City Council is scheduled to consider increasing the sales tax. The soonest the city could act is in early May by a mail-in ballot. For that to happen, all councilmembers need to sign off on the proposal by next Tuesday.
“There’s another issue,” says Tulloch. “A mail-in ballot would cost the city about $250,000, and, of course, that’s money we just don’t have.”