WALNUT CREEK -- If Tuesday night's City Council meeting is any indication, the road to close a $4.4 million two-year budget shortfall is going to be rough.

Amid a backdrop of supporters advocating a half-cent sales tax being placed on the November ballot, council members are clearly divided on how to fix the short-term problem, which is leading to a contentious budget battle.

The two-year $150 million budget must be adopted by July 1. Tuesday was the beginning of the budget hash-out, but there is a clear divide among city leaders over using one-time and new revenue to help pay for the shortfall and making difficult cuts.

Cuts bandied about at Tuesday's meeting -- but not decided on -- include using one-time money to pay for school resource officers, cutting unspecified segments of the city's arts programs, cutting public services and closing the swim center in the winter.

A preliminary agreement to close some of the $4 million shortfall:

  • Increased fees the city charges for various services = $490,432 for two years

  • Use new parking revenue (meter charges doubled April 7) = $1 million for two years

  • Reduce the amount going to information technology and asset management (think roads, maintenance of facilities) = $1 million over two years

  • Use one-time money to fund school resource officers = $400,000

  • Use one-time money to fund lobbying agreement making it a pilot program = $200,000

  • Service and program reductions to be cut in the second-half of the budget = $1 million in 2015-16

  • Look at potential of changing reserves to allow more cash flow into general fund

    Broadway Plaza in Walnut Creek, Calif., Jan. 18, 2014. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group)
    Broadway Plaza in Walnut Creek, Calif., Jan. 18, 2014. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group)

    Mayor Kristina Lawson supported staff's plan to raise fees, use new parking revenue and $2.2 million from Broadway Plaza's cash gift for its expansion to help balance the budget.

    But Councilwomen Cindy Silva and Loella Haskew and Mayor Pro Tem Bob Simmons didn't support that entire plan, saying it was irresponsible to balance the budget on one-time moneys. This led to rounds and rounds of the mayor asking bluntly what should be cut -- a difficult question not easily answered.

    "I would not cut at any of these programs at this point," Lawson said. "Our staff has come to us and said not only do we have these one-time revenues from Broadway Plaza, we have additional revenue of almost $3 million more. We could solve this entire budget shortfall tonight without cutting one thing in this town."

    But Silva shot back that it only solved the short-term problem, and that long-term financial outlook shows multimillion deficits for the next several years.

    "Two years from now, that money will be gone and will be spent and we will be doing the same thing and there is no silver bullet out there," Silva said.

    Speakers at Tuesday's meeting urged the council to put a half-cent sales tax on the budget saying the city needs a steady stream of revenue. Some city councilors seemed to agree.

    "We have a structural defect," Haskew said. "It is appropriate and right that we give the citizens of Walnut Creek, who have the most at stake with this decision the opportunity, to weigh in on how it should be solved."

    But Lawson, who along with Councilman Justin Wedel, have said they are not interested in putting a tax measure on the ballot, said she expects that the public would want the council to use the millions it has before asking for higher taxes.

    Once the council passes a two-year budget, some big ticket items still must be addressed. These includes roads and building maintenance, replacing facilities like the Clarke Swim Center and $11 million needed for information technology infrastructure. Also missing from the draft budget is how to fund the additional open library hours at the city's two libraries. Which means that as of 2015-16 hours of operation will go to 35 hours per week.

    Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617. Follow her at Twitter.com/enardi10.

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