LAFAYETTE -- A possible budget shortfall of $256,000 or more, resulting from rising police contract costs due to escalating pension debt, has prompted city leaders here to move forward with asking residents to weigh in on solutions to the budget problem and other issues -- including a possible sales tax increase.
Continuing a conversation that began in late March, council members voted this week to have a subcommittee comprised of Mayor Don Tatzin and Vice Mayor Brandt Andersson work with city staff to look at different technological tools to survey residents on how to proceed. The council subcommittee will also draft survey questions that will come back to the full council at a public meeting before officials decide whether to proceed with the poll.
The approach differs substantially from a recommendation by City Manager Steven Falk to hire a consultant to help craft and conduct a traditional telephone survey to gauge voter sentiment. The city estimated that proposal could cost up to $25,000.
Though the idea was blasted by a handful of residents and questioned by some council members last month, Falk defended the professional survey as a sensible approach.
"Given what's at stake, at a cost equal to two-tenths of 1 percent of the annual budget, we think that to spend $25,000 is not only a responsible approach, but we also think that it's the fair approach and the democratic approach," Falk told the council. "It deliberately and democratically seeks to collect the widest and broadest array of opinions about these decisions."
According to Falk, those decisions include whether to reduce or eliminate "certain less essential programs" such as library hours, transportation programs, the city's streetpole banner program and code enforcement.
In addition to the rising costs of police services contracted from the county sheriff's office, the city is looking at adding a full-time police services assistant and shifting a half-time investigator position to full-time in response to an uptick in property crimes. If approved, the hires could add an additional $200,000 to the city's budget, increasing the shortfall to about $465,000, Falk said.
The city is also coping with a general fund reserve that's $2 million short of its targeted goal after the purchase last year of the old library building from the county. That purchase happened as part of a lawsuit settlement arising from the formation of Lafayette's now dissolved redevelopment agency. The city had estimated it would have about $7.1 million in its general fund at the end of this fiscal year.
Not everyone is on board with the push for the phone survey.
Councilwoman Traci Reilly suggested the city look at more economical alternatives, such as the online polling tool SurveyMonkey. Reilly touted the lower cost and said such an approach would allow more residents to participate as opposed to a focused group selected by a professional pollster.
"If we are looking to do a survey because we are looking at having budget shortfalls ... we think we would want to at least be open to other technologies and other ways that might be less costly," Reilly said.
She also requested updated budget numbers from the city that the council subcommittee will discuss as they look at different technologies and draft questions.
Residents Monday also recommended the city find a cheaper alternative and involve the public in the subcommittee's work. Resident Guy Atwood warned a half-cent or 1 cent tax increase may not be enough to solve the city's problems on a "long term basis." He urged staffers to do more research on costs related to major city projects over time.
"Once we know that information, then I think we can sit down and tell the public what the options are and what the funding needs are," Atwood said. "They'll be better informed and be able to answer a survey if in fact that's the direction we go."
The council is scheduled to discuss the proposed 2014-15 budget in May.