Friday, July 10, 2009

State budget issues crippling Tahoe entities

6/09 tahoe mt. news

By Kathryn Reed

Fubar doesn’t even begin to describe California’s budget fiasco.
At last glance, Sacramento was claiming a $24 billion deficit. The number keeps growing. The biggest leap came after voters on May 19 nixed all of the propositions the governor wanted to use to help bridge the gap.
This comes after a much delayed budget for 2008-09 that dealt with a $42 billion deficit.
Even though the electorate sent a resounding message to lawmakers for them to do their job – balance the budget -- whatever decisions are ultimately made are likely to affect each person living in and visiting the Golden State.
Every state park in the Lake Tahoe Basin could be impacted.
For a governor like Arnold Schwarzenegger who boasts about understanding tourism and who has been in promotional campaigns, his decisions to cutoff access to pristine land and historical structures in this region and other locales seems at a minimum to be contradictory.
His state website says, “Travel and tourism expenditures total $97.6 billion annually in California, supporting jobs for 924,000 Californians and generating $5.8 billion in state and local tax revenues.”
If there is a silver lining, it’s that the closures of 220 of the 279 state parks would occur after Labor Day.
Regionally, the state parks proposed to be shuttered are Grover Hot Springs in Markleeville, Bodie, D.L. Bliss, Emerald Bay, Donner, Ed Z’berg Sugar Pine Point, Mono Lake and Washoe Meadows (home to Lake Tahoe Golf Course).
A state park official told the Tahoe Mountain News last summer the Meyers golf course makes about $950,000 a year for the state parks system. It ranks between Hearst Castle and Morro Bay when it comes to generating dollars. The latter is home to the only other golf course on state park land.
This makes the proposed closing of Washoe Meadows even more curious.

South Lake Tahoe

The state is threatening to take away about $800,000 in property tax dollars that South Lake Tahoe had been counting on.
“Under Proposition 1A passed by the voters (in 2004) to protect local revenues from state take-away, the state can borrow local revenues, but must pay them back within three years. They can do so twice in any 10-year period,” explained Christine Vuletich, South Lake’s director of finance.
The city is not resting idly, though. It has applied for federal stimulus money:
$5 million for Lakeview Commons, $3.5 million for the Al Tahoe erosion control project, $6 million for the El Dorado Beach to Ski Run bike trail, and an $85 million loan for the convention center.
“Currently these projects are part of a Regional Economic Recovery Work Plan that we are now a part of. While we won’t see direct funding from this work plan; it is being sent to Washington, D.C., as a tool to see where the need is in the state of California,” Vuletich wrote. “We have heard that there may be a potential second round of stimulus and we are hoping this list may steer the direction of where funding is allocated.”
About a dozen city officials on May 29 met with Rep. Tom McClintock, the Republican who represents the California side of the Lake in Congress. Neither the public nor the press was invited to the meeting at Lake Tahoe Airport.
When Mayor Jerry Birdwell asked the congressman about the letter he wrote Jan. 30 about projects in the city that are shovel ready and ideal for stimulus money, McClintock “looked like a deer in headlights”, according to Birdwell. It’s unknown whether McClintock’s staff didn’t share the letter or the congressman chose not to read it.
However, considering an aide to McClintock met with the mayor earlier this year asking what the congressman could do for South Lake Tahoe, it seems odd McClintock didn’t know the city’s position. A copy of the letter was also given to McClintock when he was here last month.
Birdwell’s assessment is the federal official’s only interest is possibly helping the city secure some of the $6 millions needed to fix the dilapidated asphalt from the runway to the airport terminal.
McClintock’s office was not available for comment as of press time.
For the time being, the city has no intention of curtailing police, fire or snow removal services. Those were the three big issues that led to the city to being incorporated in 1965 and seem to be off-limits.
The city has cut the capital improvement budget by about $1 million. This means the roads will stay riddled with potholes.
A reduction in staff through layoffs and early retirements is under way. Further staff cuts are likely as revenues keep missing their market. After all, the council during a recession in October approved a budget with anticipated revenue growth. Each month Vuletich updates the council on revenues and expenses – with more red than black in the report.

El Dorado County

The Board of Supervisors is having workshops for the 2009-10 budget on June 8, June 10, June 11, June 15, June 17 and June 18, with adoption tentatively scheduled for June 23. Each meeting is at 9am at 330 Fair Lane in Placerville.
"The failure of the propositions was no surprise. They failed to address the structural problems within the state budget," Supervisor Norma Santiago said. "Nonetheless, the county is faced with ongoing challenges in balancing its budget. And, in my opinion, the county has already made significant cuts in its work force. Any additional cuts would only lead to further degradation of the delivery of services and programs that the state mandates we deliver. The challenge before us is how the county can make operational improvements to reduce costs."
Supervisors are expected to look at their own salaries.
About 200 positions have been cut in the county, hiring freezes are part of the mix. Mandatory and voluntary furlough programs are in place.
Although future cuts are not known, consolidation of offices is having a ripple affect. Social service agencies in the basin are up in arms that Child Protective Services is for the most part moving to Placerville this month. Tahoe sheriff’s deputies may be cut. That department, like many others, is already bare bones. The state threat to take away more money is just as real for El Dorado County as it is for the city. “We are not only concerned about the short-term impact of a Prop. 1A suspension, but also concerned about the long-term impact given the state's track record of paying back what it has swept from local governments,” Mike Applegarth, the county’s senior administrative analyst, wrote. “A Prop. 1A suspension could result in a $6.3 million dollar hit to El Dorado County's general fund. It is conceivable that if the Legislature exempts certain categories of local government from a Prop. 1A suspension, the impact to El Dorado County could be even greater.
“While a Prop. 1A suspension has the potential to significantly compound local government financial difficulties and compromise local public services, it does nothing to permanently improve the state's long-term fiscal sustainability. It amounts to another fiscal Band-Aid on a state's hemorrhaging budget.”
Lake Tahoe Unified

The school board has drawn a line in the sand – keep class size reduction, music and physical education.
“That is kids,” LTUSD Superintendent Jim Tarwater said of those programs. “We are not going to give that up.”
In February, the state took away $1.2 million from the K-12 school district. In May, another $800,000 was rescinded.
The $1.2 million is for this school year and next. Cutting just more than four full-time positions and reducing categorical funds by 20 percent addresses that budgetary setback.
“When they give us flexibility in all the restrictive programs, what they said is ‘we don’t care about those programs’,” Tarwater said. “We know they won’t reinstate those programs.”
Further staff cuts are possible. It may mean fewer instructional aides, custodians, vice principals and/or counselors.
Staff account for about 82 percent of the district’s budget. Some districts put personnel at 85 percent, so LTUSD believes it has wiggle room.
The $800,000 the district has to cut will be backfilled with the $1 million in federal stimulus money it was to receive. But this is a one-time fix and won’t help if the state keeps cutting or continues to fund at May 2009 levels.
Tarwater knows the district could do without painting or repaving for a year to save a couple hundred thousand dollars. Bus routes could be changed, though some students already ride for quite some time.
Kids are being impacted immediately with much of summer school going by the wayside.
Looking at ways to cut the utility bill are possible, but when the district office and others are more than 40 years old, inefficiencies abound and are costly to fix. A savings on things like utilities is likely once the bond money is spent on new buildings and upgrades to others.
Although classified and certificated unions agreed to a two-year contract without a pay increase, it’s unknown if a reduction in pay may have to be talked about down the road. The steps and ladders pay hikes are intact. As is normal in K-12 districts, automatic raises are given based on the number of years of experience and education level. So, even though a contractual across the board pay raise is not part of the equation, some employees of the district are continuing to see their paychecks increase.

Community college

The governor’s latest idea means Lake Tahoe Community College would have to cut $362,346 from this year’s budget and $1.3 million from the 2009-10 budget.
“These cuts would come out of the following areas: basic skills, Cooperative Agencies Resources for Education (CARE), counseling, placement and assessment, disabled students programs and services, extended opportunities programs and services, instructional equipment, part-time faculty compensation, and scheduled maintenance,” the college said in a press release.
The budget, like at the K-12, city and county levels, is likely to be a regular agenda item for this board of education at each meeting.
Students should expect by the fall to see fewer course offerings, larger classes and possibly higher fees. Fees are set by the state and currently are at $13 per unit. The Legislative Analysts Office has tossed out the possibility of $60/per unit.
How colleges are funded, a student’s fees don’t cover the cost of a class, so raising fees or offering more classes are not the easy solutions.
Many courses limit the number of students – like labs – which can only function with a finite number of people.
The College Council, which consists of faculty, classified staff, administration, and students, met May 29 about the budget dilemma. Eventually they will make a recommendation to the board.
Another state take-away may be how PE is funded. The state is considering funding at the noncredit rate, which is much less than the credit rate. LTCC, which has a massive phys ed program, hasn’t even crunched those numbers.
Slashing programs is hard to do.
“You can’t just eliminate programs with students in midstream,” college spokeswoman Christina Proctor said.
Plus, doing so could affect the base mission of community colleges, which is to prepare students to transfer to a four-year institution.
The idea of being closed Fridays has been talked about. Its doubtful night classes will be curtailed based on LTCC’s student population.
Even though a 1.5 percent pay increase for staff is still on the table, the board has the ability to yank that based on what the state does. It’s plausible to see boards across the state begin renegotiating contracts.
The irony is that when community colleges are growing in numbers, the state cuts are projected to affect enrollment. The Community College League of California estimates a loss of 9 percent or 623 full-time students at LTCC.

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