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Bishop budget a ‘year-round balancing act’

November 30, 2012

City Administrator Keith Caldwell (l) and Assistant Finance Director Cheryl Solesbee are in the process of finalizing the proposed 2013-14 fiscal year budget, which has been collaboratively prepared with the help of all city department heads. Photo by Marilyn Blake Philip

It looks like the City of Bishop will enter the 2013-2014 fiscal year with a sound, flexible blueprint it can use to guide government spending and revenue.
Although the 2013-14 budget, the second year of a two-year budget, is in its final stages, a city spending plan is a complex, year-round balancing act, said Assistant Finance Director Cheryl Solesbee. The entire budget, or cost of running the city, during
the 2013-14 fiscal year is projected to be $9,525,113. That is down from $10,692,150 for 2012-13 and up from the 2011-12 budget of $8,769,175.
According to Solesbee, a budget, in any given year, is a changeable, working document, the primary purpose of which is to give guidelines for operational and capital spending. The annual goal is to balance revenues and expenditures in the face of necessary capital expenditures; benefit increases; state funding cuts; and other varying deterrents.
“Difficult choices have to be made and in this fiscal uncertainty, we are constantly working, reviewing and reworking our budgets,” with each city department using “every opportunity to cut costs and look for savings. It is an ongoing process which does not allow us to put our guard down for one moment,” explained Solesbee.
As it stands now, when the assistant finance director receives the final audited figures for 2011-12, she can complete the final budget for 2012-13, and in turn, finalize the proposed 2013-14 preliminary budget. “We are very pleased that our General Fund is expected to be within $36,000” of being balanced. Quite an improvement considering that “when we began the budget for 2011-12, our expenditures were estimated to be $178,000 over revenues for the General Fund.”
The General Fund, which is 62 percent of the entire city budget, covers the majority of the city’s staff costs. The proposed General Fund budget is $5,964,596 for the 2013-14 fiscal year, up from the adopted $5,831,247 for 2012-13 and estimated $5,645,578 for 2011-12. With the most personnel (but still understaffed and operating on 11 of 14 sworn officers positions), the Police Department accounts for 53 percent of the total General Fund and is proposed to cost $3,161,500 for 2013-14.
Budgeted 2013-14 General Fund expenditures are up approximately $115,000 from 2012-13, said Solesbee, largely attributable to rising personnel benefits, retirement and health care costs. The cost to the city of a full-time employee is roughly twice his or her salary once benefits and other costs are taken into account, added City Administrator Keith Caldwell. That said, he was quick to “credit the community, its volunteers. We wouldn’t be able to provide the current level of quality services” without the help of 37 volunteer firemen, 80 Friends of the Park volunteers and a little more than 50 seasonal workers annually.
Caldwell called the 2013-14 budget “a blueprint we use to plan city programs and services. If the City Council makes a request, we have the answer,” said Caldwell. That blueprint “may need to change and develop, hopefully to become as close to perfectly balanced as possible … so we can build our monetary reserves.” In 2011, the city established a funding policy of maintaining a 15 percent, or $1 million, General Fund reserve. Currently, the city’s prudent reserve sits at a very comfortable 37 percent, according to Solesbee.
The General Fund is of greatest budgetary concern because it cannot easily increase its revenue, explained Solesbee, most of which comes from the Transient Occupancy Tax, aka bed-tax. Property tax, sales tax and various miscellaneous fees also feed that coffer. Since taxes can’t be increased without “a citizenry vote,” increased revenues are always sought through seeking special state or grant funding, explained Solesbee. “With the uncertainty of state funding and limited revenue sources, we continue to experience a flattening effect for revenues,” said Solesbee.
Enterprise Funds, or water and sewer funds combined, are approximately 24 percent of the total city budget and are not part of the General Fund. Water and sewer funds are funded by service fees paid by property and business owners and those “funds may only be used for operational and capital expenditure costs.” The Headworks project, for example, which will upgrade the sewer plant, is an Enterprise Funds project.
While street projects may be funded by different sources, STIP – State Transportation Improvement Projects – funding customarily comes from Caltrans. Noteworthy projects in the works for budget year 2012-13 are the Wye Road Intersection Improvement (funded by Caltrans and Kmart) and Warren Street Improvement projects (STIP-funded). The 2013-14 budget shows allocations for the Pine-to-Park Pathway (also STIP-funded) and ongoing Warren Street work.
The four-year-old Home Owners Assistance Program is set up as a separate fund within the budget. It will be ending this year when its Community Development Block Grant funding by the state runs out Contingent upon state funding, said Caldwell, the program could start up again in January. The Home Owners Assistance Program not only helped people buy homes, it put lenders, escrow people and Realtors to work, he added.
The budget process is very much a team effort, according to Solesbee. Every department has made, and will continue to make, operational cuts as needed to absorb increases, Solesbee explained. And the budget is reviewed monthly, added Caldwell, so there are no surprises. The city’s department heads, Public Works Director David Grah, Fire Chief Ray Seguine and Police Chief Chris Carter, “are all looking at the same numbers we are. They know going in what they have to do to fix deficits, to respond to suggested or requested cuts,” said Caldwell, who also serves as director of the Community Services Department.
“If we want to try something new like the Dog Park or Community Garden, we have to be creative and innovative. It takes (citizens) with passion for a project to make it happen. The same is true of the with department heads,” Caldwell said.
Solesbee added, “We’re all number junkies.” And they have to be, she went on, in order to “face the challenges of adding more services with less staff and less resources … With the financial crisis the world is in, you have to be creative to make things happen” – all the while keeping “a focus on serving the public with their tax dollars in mind,” said Caldwell.
Caldwell said that Solesbee “has become quite the expert on predicting … She looks at trends (and) deserves the credit for the close budgets we’ve had over the last couple of years.”
Trend-wise, “everything is leveling out, so I feel more comfortable projecting revenues and expenditures,” said Solesbee, especially since “we met our mark on bed tax and sales tax” for fiscal year 2011-12.
The preliminary budget for fiscal year 2013-14 was expected to be ready by Nov. 30, for public perusal from 8 a.m.- 4:30 p.m. weekdays at City Hall, located at 377 West Line St., or at www.ca-bishop.us, under “Administration.”
“The public should know that our budget document and process is pretty simple and easy to read … broken down by departments, (each) with a section showing beginning and ending fund balances. We are always available to anyone who has specific questions or concerns about any aspect of our city operations,” Solesbee said.

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