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Lompoc still searching for solutions as it tries to tackle budget deficit

Posted: 9:20 PM, May 15, 2019
Updated: 2019-05-16 01:36:09-04

Lompoc city leaders again looked for ways to tackle the city’s multi-million dollar budget deficit Wednesday.

A community meeting was held, where department heads and community members expressed concerns and discussed potential solutions.

The city is facing a nearly $4 million budget deficit for the 2019-21 fiscal years, largely due to unfunded CalPERS pensions for former employees.

One solution that has been considered is a 1 percent sales tax measure on a city-wide ballot, however, some city council members have expressed concerns, saying they can’t depend on voters passing the measure.

Lompoc’s Finance Director has said the sales tax could generate close to $5 million per year.

During the meeting, officials explained that Lompoc’s current sales tax rate is 7.75 percent. They say only about 1 percent of that tax goes to Lompoc.

Officials cited recent sales tax increases in Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, and Carpinteria and said that it could be a potential option for the city.

The city attorney said the soonest a sales tax measure would likely appear on the ballot would be November 2020 and it would require four votes from the City Council. However, he said it was possible the council could decide to hold a mail-in only election in November of 2019, March 2020, April 2020, May 2020, or August 2020.

Lompoc Fire Chief Gerald Kuras spoke at Wednesday’s meeting and discussed the department’s needs, both long-term and short-term.

He said the department needs $58 million for earthquake retrofitting at its station, although he said that was a long-term need. Similarly, he said the department needs two fire engines and a ladder truck in the long-term, which would cost an estimated $54 million.

Chief Kuras said the immediate priority needs to be retaining rescue and current staffing levels.

“They already feel under-appreciated and morale has hit an all-time low,” said Chief Kuras.

He says if the department had to further cut staffing and overtime, it would have major implications, including the department no longer being able to participate in the statewide mutual aid program.

He likened the situation to the Titanic, saying the city of Lompoc has hit an iceberg and people are bailing. He said it was up to the City Council to save people by throwing a life preserver.

Budget cuts could also impact the city’s police department.

Sgt. Kevin Martin said Wednesday that the department was asked to present an eight percent budget reduction plan.

He said their main priority is for staffing to remain at 44 sworn officers and that they’re concerned about retention.

“Our biggest request is officers, that’s what we need, that’s what the community needs,” said Sgt. Martin.

The department also asked to replace six marked patrol vehicles and requested funding for two-factor authentication, which is needed for security purposes.

The library director also spoke and said budget cuts could impact children in the community who rely on libraries as a safe place to go after school.

Library Director Sarah Bleyl presented an 8.7 percent budget cut plan, which would involve eliminating the library’s volunteer program for those learning to read English, laying off hourly staff, and closing the library on Mondays.

“A lot of the kids have told us they do not feel safe in their neighborhoods and they come to the library until their mom and dad come home from work so they have a safe place to be,” said Bleyl as she tried to explain the importance of keeping the library open every day.

She says about 650 people use the library each day.

Bleyl said the library is still in need of funding for increased programming, an additional book return box, new computers, additional books and audio-visual materials, new self-checkout kiosks and security gates, and additional staffing.

Public Works officials say maintenance at city parks will fall through the cracks without proper funding.

Mike Luther, who works in the department, said the department is currently down several positions, leaving it with just five filled positions to do field maintenance. He said there is a critical need for playground equipment replacement, roof repairs, restroom maintenance, park maintenance, and tree removal.

Council members discussed the possibility of using Prop 68 grants to help with public works funding, but Luther said there was no guarantee that they would receive a grant.

The city council will discuss two other options at a meeting on May 28.

In total, council members are considering three options, which include putting the tax measure on the ballot, moving forward with budget cuts and deciding on the tax ballot later, or just moving forward with budget cuts.

The city held a similar budget workshop in April, which lasted more than four hours.