Central Valley

Turlock could go dark to save money

TURLOCK — Would city leaders put Turlock in the dark to help fix the budget?

City Council members heard a proposal Tuesday night to turn off half the streetlights on the west side and in Turlock's older neighborhoods to save $158,000, just one piece of a plan to fill a $5.2 million deficit next year.

"Probably none of us have the will to shut the lights off," Councilman Ted Howze said. "We better come up with a plan to recover that money."

The city's budget crisis means 22 full- and part-time employees will lose their jobs for the 2009-10 budget year, including nine building department workers, Finance Director Sheila Cumberland said.

The City Council plans to vote on a final budget June 9. The 2009-10 budget year starts July 1. Tuesday's workshop was held so council members could discuss a subcommittee's recommendations.

Development Services Director Mike Pitcock said the loss of nearly 20,000 man hours in the building department will mean longer waits in City Hall and recorded messages rather than a live person on the phone.

Chief building official Mark Ellis, who is among those who may be laid off, said cutting so many positions — two-thirds of the building staff — can create years of resentment even after the economy rebounds.

Ellis pointed out Turlock's exceptionally robust reserve, representing 44 percent of its $32 million general fund budget.

"Take some of that general fund reserve and put that into some staff positions so customers can be served," Ellis said.

Turlock plans to balance the books for the most part by spending $2.6 million of that $14 million reserve next year.

Howze and Mayor John La-zar met as a budget subcommittee to consider department recommendations for the cuts, which, coupled with spending from the general fund reserves, would meet the more than $5 million deficit for next year.

"We both had more gray hair and stomachaches after these meetings," Howze said.

A majority of the council supported the subcommittee's recommendations and agreed to cut the Arts Commission's full-time staff position from the budget.

"That will eliminate arts from the budget completely," said Commission Chair Claudia Silva-Doo.

Turlock projects to lose $3.4 million in sales and property tax revenue next year.

In the past year, several large businesses have closed, including Circuit City, Mervyn's, Youngdale's, Turlock Auto Plaza and the Woods Furniture stores in downtown Turlock.

In February, city employees agreed to kick in 5 percent of their pre-tax salaries toward their health care or pensions.

That saved more than $1 million among the 370 full-time Turlock employees.

Without it, the deficit would have climbed to more than $6 million.

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at mbalassone@modbee.com or 578-2337.

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