Furloughs Ending, Budget Woes Continue in Lindsay

McDermont Field House will stay open, furloughs for city employees will end on December 5, and the proposal to add a half-percent to Lindsay’s sales tax is dead for now–but the city is still operating in the red and no plan to make up the gap is yet in the works as strife continues among members of the Lindsay City Council.

Budget Crisis Ongoing

Currently, the city budget is running a deficit on the order of $490,000 annually, and the city is facing a cash crunch that led it to furlough workers two days a month starting in August. If a new source of revenue isn’t found, the city could find itself issuing layoffs, scaling back its public safety spending, and even closing some of its facilities and reducing hours of operation at others.

“We have a deficit, and it’s not going away,” said Tamera Laken, the city’s finance director. “Honestly, I don’t see how we cannot take measures now to start closing this gap.”

Sales Tax Off Table

In September, the Council investigated the possibility of asking voters to approve a one-half-percent sales tax that would bolster the city’s sagging general fund. Such a measure would require a simple majority for approval, and if it were passed would still leave a sizable gap in the city’s budget. However, that plan was cut short when two members of the council, Mayor Pro-Tem Rosaena Sanchez and Steven Mecum, refused to support the idea.

“I’m against this, and I make no bone about it,” Mecum said. “Government is needing more money to operate. If we do this, they’re going to need more money. It doesn’t stop.”

Mecum claimed, despite his personal philosophy against raising any tax, that voters would not support increasing the local sales tax.

Chaos on Council

A Council discussion of the sales tax at its September 22 meeting broke down into an argument among council members, city employees and the members of the public. The Council eventually deadlocked 2-2 on the sales tax proposal, effectively killing it, as four-fifths of the council had to agree in order to place the item before voters.

“If we keep going the way we’re going, we’re going to end up like Mexico,” Sanchez said as the discussion broke down into chaos.

“Right now, we’re in a downward spiral,” said Councilwoman Pamela Kimball. “If we keep cutting, you reduce services, you reduce hours, the city is less attractive, you reduce your property values, you get less that way, you reduce your sales tax. I mean it will just continue to spiral down.”

McDermont to Stay Open

The city’s financial problems stem from loans used to fund city beautification projects before the financial crash of 2008, which caused a drop in property tax revenue, as well as from unexpected payouts to two former employees, Rich Wilkinson, the former city manager who departed earlier in the year, forcing the city to pay him a sizable severance package, and a former police officer whose wrongful termination suit against the city was settled out of court.

The focus shifted recently to the operation of the city’s McDermont Field House, its main recreational facility, and the Wellness Center, and whether they should be shut down to reduce city costs. The idea brought an immediate and harsh backlash from the public, and the Council sought to distance itself from the idea.

“The last discussion we had in our last meeting was just that, a discussion on how to shrink, reduce the overhead that is diverted from the general fund to those two facilities,” Mayor Ramona Villarreal-Padilla said. “That was what was in question.”

She polled the members of the Council during its meeting October 27, and each of them indicated their desire to keep both facilities open. Even if they had been closed, there would be no savings for the city, as it would still have to make payments on the pair of loans it took to fund their operation.

Tensions Run High

Meanwhile, the city remains without a city manager. Currently, Bill Zigler, Lindsay’s city planner, is acting as interim manager. Discussion about hiring a replacement for Wilkinson at the October 13 Council meeting quickly broke down into talk about costs, savings and accusations of foot-dragging.

The bad feelings continued at the October 27 meeting, when dozens of citizens turned out to protest the possible closure of McDermont and the Wellness Center. The Council adamantly denied any plan to close the facilities, but still faced ire from those in the audience, who reminded them a Grand Jury investigation of allegations of improper action by members of the council is still underway and that a recall effort is being considered.

No decision was reached on beginning the search for a new city manager; however, a study session was set for November 16.

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