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Next year's Turlock city budget looks ugly

TURLOCK — A first look at the city's budget Tuesday night took nobody by surprise: The situation is bleak, and there's no indication it's going to get better anytime soon.

The Turlock City Council put numbers to the public at a budget workshop before its regular meeting. Those numbers are big and red.

A budgeted shortfall of $2.5 million this fiscal year likely will be closer to $3.3 million or $3.5 million, City Manager Roy Wasden said. The numbers are similar for the 2010-11 budget.

The council passed the 2009-10 budget hoping the economy would turn around.

Nobody sees that happening now. "Deficit spending cannot be sustained," Wasden said. "It essentially will end in insolvency."

Councilman Ted Howze said the city likely will have to continue spending from its reserves to maintain services.

But with sales tax revenue deteriorating because people aren't spending as much, some hard decisions are ahead.

"This is the new norm," Councilman Kurt Spycher said.

Given current staffing and salary levels, the city would have to eliminate 27 to 38 positions to balance its budget. And that would have an impact on public safety staffing, never a popular area to cut.

Wasden pointed out that the city only has 43 employees outside of police and fire whose salaries come out of the general fund.

Last year, city employees agreed to a 5 percent pay cut to limit layoffs. The agreement prevents the city from asking for further cuts at this point, but Spycher said he has heard from several unions that they're open to continued cuts.

Howze said it's going to take more than that.

"Does everybody want to work together?" he said. "Nobody wants to do layoffs. But last year we tried to stop step (wage) increases. None of the employee unions wanted to do it.

"Everybody's going to work together or everybody's going to argue and we're all going to sink together on this budgetary ship."

Proceed publicly, privately?

Council members disagreed on how work on the budget should proceed.

Spycher suggested appointing Lazar and Howze to a budget committee that would do preliminary work "behind closed doors" and bring it back to the council.

Councilwoman Amy Bublak agreed.

Councilwoman Mary Jackson suggested having the entire council handle the budget at regularly scheduled meetings that are open to the public. "Conduct the public's business in the public," she said.

In Modesto, meetings of the City Council's Finance Committee are open to the public.

Spycher countered that everything the committee suggests will go before the council for a public vote.

Howze said that, during committee meetings, ideas to bring in more money or spend less are thrown forward that would "scare the bejesus out of people and don't see the light of day."

Lazar said he was open to either approach.

The matter will come before the council for action at its next meeting.

In the meantime, another budget workshop, open to the public, is set for 6 p.m. April 13.

Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at pguerra@modbee.com or 578-2343.

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