WALNUT CREEK -- Threats to the open hours at the city's libraries and calls to shut down the pool during the winter did not materialize last week when the City Council adopted its two-year budget. In the end, residents will see no change with those services, which brought out hundreds of speakers to council over the last several months.
City leaders actually cut very little that residents will notice, but some council members bemoaned what they call a structural deficit that needs to be dealt with in the future.
The biggest hiccup with the $150 million two-year budget adopted June 17, was a $4 million budget gap -- at times made wider by the council taking on more costs such as the 21 additional weekly open library hours no longer paid for by a now-expired parcel tax.
To close the budget gap, city leaders agreed to:
Services saved included open library hours at both of the city's branches. The county pays for 35 hours a week at each of its 26 libraries; if a city wants more than 35 hours of open time, that city must pay for the additional hours. Through a parcel tax, Walnut Creek enjoyed 56 open hours a week for years, but that parcel tax has expired.
The council had already figured out how to pay for the additional hours for 2014-2015, and then at the June 17 meeting found more money to fund the additional hours for fiscal year 2015-2016. The council decided to use $460,015 of a projected $579,257 surplus from the 2013-2014 fiscal year for the second year's additional open library hours.
"Even though we are pleased with these results ... We need to keep in mind that this is an interim solution," said Ed Del Beccaro, past president of the library foundation.
The council will decide how to fund the library in the future when it takes part in a larger discussion to determine how the city should also pay for and operate the Lesher Center for the Arts and the Clarke Swim Center.
It may be confusing how Walnut Creek leaders can talk about a $4 million shortfall and then have a nearly $600,000 surplus. But the shortfall is projected, and over the next two years, it will materialize if that projection was indeed accurate. The surplus is thanks to higher-than-expected revenue from "unspent funds," according to an agenda report.
The council does have a policy that mandates how to spend one-time money, such as a surplus, on capital improvements or IT infrastructure upgrades. But that policy is not "triggered" until the close of the fiscal year, said City Manager Ken Nordhoff. And when the council made the decision to use surplus money on library hours, the fiscal year had not closed.
"It solves the issue for a full two years," said Mayor Pro Tem Bob Simmons. "This is something that is consistent with the city's policies."
Mayor Kristina Lawson said the city would have had no deficit or shortfall if city leaders had called "all of the city's money, money."
She is referring to the $5 million the city will be getting from Broadway Plaza for redevelopment of its outdoor mall and a recent land sale. The majority of council members said they did not want to use that "one-time money" to help balance the budget.
A discussion, and likely allocation, of how to spend that money will happen in July.
Some council members still pressed that while this budget may be balanced for the foreseeable future, a $3 million a year shortfall is projected.
"This does not change our future," said Councilwoman Cindy Silva. "It gives us a balanced budget for two years, but as we go forward we are faced with our expenses raising faster than our revenues, and this will continue."
Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617. Follow her at Twitter.com/enardi10.