EL CERRITO -- In the midst of a budget crisis that has effectively put a lid on new spending, the city is asking residents to state their priorities for allocating the money that is available.
El Cerrito has held two community meetings so far to gather suggestions for how to divide up its $45.8 million operating budget. Two more are scheduled for later in March.
Residents at the second event on March 15 came down on the practical side, agreeing that public safety and stabilizing the city finances should be the top goals.
Former Mayor Rich Bartke set the tone by saying that "you don't have a city without public safety," a problem that larger cities such as Oakland and Richmond have been grappling with for a long time.
Thirty-five year resident Al Miller backed up Bartke's concerns by pointing to what he said are growing numbers of assaults and robberies along the Ohlone Greenway, the greenbelt pedestrian and bicycle path along the BART tracks.
Other priorities identified in El Cerrito's strategic plan include "deepening a sense of place," which might involve bringing in new businesses and increasing recreational offerings, and "fostering environmental sustainability," which could include improving park maintenance and clean water programs among other measures.
El Cerrito has been grappling with budget cuts since 2008 primarily because of reductions in property and sales tax revenue and the recent loss of redevelopment to the state, according to assistant City Manager Karen Pinkos.
About 58 percent of El Cerrito's $28.5 million in general fund revenue comes from property, sales and utility taxes. About 17 percent comes from contract services to other agencies, including resource officers posted at Portola Middle School and El Cerrito High School paid for by the West Contra Costa school district as well as fire service to Kensington.
Most of the rest comes from charges for services, including recreation and public works as well as fines and permit and license fees
Despite a rebound in real estate values since the Great Recession, property tax proceeds have continued to fall. El Cerrito received $5.6 million from property taxes in 2012-13, down from $5.7 million in 2011-12 and $5.9 million in 2010-11.
Sales tax revenue has also taken a hit from the closure and relocation of retail businesses, especially the relocation of the Target store to Richmond, Pinkos said.
Bartke questioned El Cerrito's ability to meet a major goal in the strategic plan of delivering "exemplary government services," recommending the city aim to provide "decent" services instead.
Referring to exemplary government services "skews the question" of whether it should be a priority since it is probably not possible, Bartke said.
Nine-year resident Greg Dehart responded to the priority of creating a sense of place by saying he would like to see the city recruit more businesses similar to the retail and entertainment offerings near the restored Cerrito Theater.
"The idea would be to try to foster more of a Solano Avenue and Piedmont Avenue feel," Pinkos said, referring to business districts in Albany/Berkeley and Oakland.
The two remaining meetings on budget priorities will be 7 p.m. March 25 at the Open House Senior Center, 6500 Stockton Ave.; and at 6:30 p.m. March 31 at the Canyon Trail Clubhouse, 6757 Gatto Ave.