For a second consecutive year, Visalia will have a balanced budget. On Thursday, June 26th, the Visalia City Council held a special meeting to review and approve the city’s budget for fiscal years 2014-15 and 2015-16. After Amy Sing and Renee Nagel, from the finance department, presented the budget council, members took turns sharing their own thoughts about the state of Visalia’s finances. The council had already been briefed during two prior work sessions, June 2nd and June 16th, so there were no public comments or questions.
Visalia’s budget for fiscal year 2014-15 is $231 million. For fiscal year 2015-16 it is $199 million. Just for comparison, Gov. Jerry Brown just signed California’s budget that came in on time at $108 billion.
All council members expressed their gratitude towards the finance department for putting together a balanced budget and focusing on rebuilding the organization. They were relieved to be rehiring staff after the Great Recession and thrilled that the city was putting $1.6 million into the rainy day fund. That would bring Visalia’s reserve up to a projected $6.9 million. Mayor Steve Nelsen said that Fresno was doing cartwheels just to be able to finally have a balanced budget and restart its contingency fund, while Visalia has added to its existing fund for two years. Council Member Greg Collins pointed out that he stays up to date with what’s going on in other valley towns such as Modesto and Bakersfield. “Visalia is in a really good financial position while everyone else is struggling.”
Both Council Member Bob Link and Mayor Nelsen thought that the finance staff was overly conservative with their projections and that Visalia would collect significantly more in sales tax than what the staff budgeted for. At the budget midterm review in March 2015, Nelsen is planning on expanding on projects they have already started if tax revenue is higher than projected.
After all the praise, council members made suggestions about what projects should be pursued in the coming years. Collins, Council Member Warren Gubler and Nelsen expressed a desire for an Aquatic Center to be built on the south side of town. Collins preferred the money that might go into a park around the Modoc Basin be spent on a community pool. Both he and Nelsen thought it wise to get community input now and possibly start building in 2017.
The biggest complaint about the budget came from Council Members Amy Shuklian and Collins. They objected to the huge amount of money coming out of the general fund to buy new lights for Rawhide Stadium. Nelsen countered that the stadium was built in the 1940s and still had its original lights. But energy-saving technology has come a long way since then, and the lights do not comply with current standards. Shuklian and Collins’ beef was that the cost of new lights should have been included in the original budget for the stadium’s remodel. If the lights put the project over budget then they could have shaved money off of another aspect of the park. Neither council member thought it appropriate for general fund dollars, which could go to hiring more police or firefighters, to go to Rawhide stadium. The new lights will end up costing the city almost $1 million.
Collins’ other gripe was the exorbitant cost of the new Visalia Emergency Communications Center building (VECC) more commonly known as the police dispatch center. Because the city is spending so much on the building, $18 million, the construction of a new police station and city hall has to be postponed. Gubler was more circumspect, realizing that the cost is an unavoidable result of the fact that the VECC building falls under the category of essential services. By law, it has to be built to a higher standard. This will ultimately save Visalia money when it comes time to build the new police station and city hall. In fact, he wants the staff to put the construction of the new city hall on the front burner because they have already purchased the land and have made a commitment to downtown Visalia to build.
The Visalia Charter states that at any regularly scheduled meeting, the city council may make changes to the adopted budget. That being the case, council has the ability to reshape the budget as it sees fit throughout the year.