After being a bit optimistic after the last meeting when the council directed staff to come back with 1 million dollars in cuts the meeting on February 16, 2021, was a disappointment. The City Manager came back with a scorched earth level of cuts including cuts that would devastate recreation and fire which we all know are two things this city will protect at any cost. Over 80 letters were received opposing those cuts most around the fire department. The community was needless panicked over a fire station cut that was never going to happen.
So the City Council voted to just go with the City Managers approximately 300k in cuts even though at the last meeting documents were presented showing there is a 1.3 million gap in the financial predictions.
The most disappointing piece is that not one council person pushed back. While Councilperson Rudnick did quote a member of the public that these cuts were cheese nibbling and say her vote for the amendment was reluctant not one councilperson directed the City Manager to come back with some level of cuts that could be implemented in this fiscal year. So the city has wasted an entire year. Their optimistic year end projection is that we will have a 1.4% reserve which is nothing. What if the fires this year are really bad and ECFD has to go fight them again? The State does reimburse this but it is months later. They currently owe around 800k to El Cerrito right now. Can we keep paying city expenses if we have to put out the money for that level of fire overtime? Or what if any other emergency occurs in a time when we are full of emergencies. I would personally be shocked if we ended with any surplus at all.
I understand that the council was not going to vote for the scorched earth proposal. No one wanted that. But there was plenty of middle ground between that and what the City Manager proposed and no one asked for that.
At this point, I am confused as to why we even have a City Council since they just do what the City Manager requests without little to no question or comment. Many of them said that more cuts need to be made and next year things would be different. For those of us who have been following this since 2018 trust me we have heard this before. If we are ever to get out of this mess real structural cuts need to be made. And at this point, they will be painful. Someone will be upset for sure. The City Council needs to show courage.
Other items of note at the meeting.
Councilperson Rudnick made an impassioned plea to move to Zoom. Webex is awful. I had my hand up for public comment and was not called on. Councilperson Abelson had terrible issues with the tech and it was a cringe-worthy section of the meeting. Finally, they helped her get in via a call but that should have been done much sooner. As Councilperson Rudnick made her plea for Zoom (something many in the public have been pushing for) the City Manager cut her off and announced that it would be happening in the next few months. For this viewer, it felt like the City Manager was trying to one-up Councilperson Rudnick.
The police were well organized. Chief Keith was on the agenda giving awards and a police union representative spoke during public comment. He said that they waived their COLA to avoid lay-offs. This year they only waived their COLA for 6 months saving 100k which is not at all equal to the cost of a layoff of one officer.
There was a large push by all departments to say that any cuts would affect minorities more. This felt manipulative. They brought this up as an equity issue but it felt really manipulative. We were told we needed more police because of the recent nationwide uptick in violence towards the Asian population. And while of course, that is an issue nationally it has not been an issue in El Cerrito. Of course, the police would say that is because they are here and preventing it. Reasonable people might disagree with that.
On page 134 of the supplement packet there is a chart of the give-backs from the unions. Please note what the firefighters and police gave back compared to SEIU. SEUI represents our lower-paid staff which includes many staff of color. Since they are the lowest-paid these cuts have substantially affected their paychecks. So although the number is more for city management the impact is much greater for SEIU employees. So the city is providing lip service to equity while cutting our lowest paid staff many of whom are minorities.
The City Manager made a statement saying how grateful she was that the auditor Baldwai and Associates has pushed them to get on the right track. This was extremely disingenuous as she is on the record numerous times saying that the going concern was an overreaction. This writer was part of a meeting with her and the Finance Director in early 2019 after the first time this was mentioned and she said at the time it was an overreaction by the auditor. Imagine what a difference it would have made if Council and staff had reacted back then.
For those that enjoy a deeper dig into the numbers, we have been told that last FY ended with a $110k deficit. But if you watched the presentation by the auditor the number is $1.7 million. The reason for the discrepancy is that the city is suing the state for $1.3 million. This has been going on for years since the dissolution of the Redevelopment Agency. The City has been showing this $1.3 million on their books as a receivable even though it is very likely we will lose that lawsuit. It is deceptive to tell the public our deficit is a minimal $110k when it is closer to 2 million. And if we are to win that case then it could be found money and added to the reserve. It is another bookkeeping maneuver by the city to create an illusion that we are better off than we are.
Here is Mark’s numbers from the last council meeting. Note the fund balance for 6/30/20 is -110,022
Below is from the auditor’s report. Note the negative $1,777,532 unassigned fund balance. Notice the lack of reserves from last year and the recommendation of 2-4 months of cash on hand.
At this point, I feel like nothing will happen until the State Auditors report comes out. It will be too late to make much in the way of changes for this fiscal year but perhaps with unbiased outsider information, the council will act. I do hope that those that became aware of the city’s financial crisis due to the scare tactics used in this meeting will stay involved. Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to be more involved in encouraging the city to be fiscally responsible.