Westminster Officials Describe ‘Vulnerable’ City Budget

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Emerging from a year in which it flirted with bankruptcy and lost 67 employees in mass layoffs due to Gov. Jerry Brown’s ending of redevelopment, top Westminster officials this week described a city government that continues to run on fumes.

During a budget study session, City Manager Eddie Manfro discussed the need to aggressively raise revenue in order to close a projected deficit of $3.5 million.

Revenues have increased slightly in recent months and the economy is stabilizing, yet Manfro remains more cautious than optimistic. He warned against drawing on reserves to finance deficit spending and said cuts to this year’s budget would be hard to make.

Westminster has reduced its staff from 294 employees in 2007 to 218 today, a loss of 76 full-time positions. With the elimination of the city’s redevelopment agency went more than $6 million a year in revenue that had previously subsidized staff hours.

Manfro said additional layoffs would be “borderline catastrophic,” describing current staffing levels in some departments as “very vulnerable without real backup” and dependent on the good will of individual employees.

City Clerk Robin Roberts said her office has shrunk from six employees to two, who are able to fulfill public records requests and meet other regulatory requirements but are straining to answer phone calls and maintain an office presence.

“Usually there’s someone at the office, but with two people on staff that’s not always the case,” said Roberts. “We’re trying to meet every regulatory requirement. There’s a level or risk for certain items if they aren’t taken care of, so we have our own internal priority list.”

The proposed two-year budget does not call for additional layoffs, instead cutting $1.1 million by reducing operations budgets, eliminating vacant positions and spreading management duties.

Despite pressure to find more places to trim fat, some council members called on staff to consider filling key vacant positions, such as the director of finance. They also said the city should increase fees to the levels of neighboring cities wherever possible. The city has not done a comprehensive fee study since 2006.

“We can’t give things away for free anymore. We need to raise revenue, and if that means a tax increase, then so be it,” said Councilwoman Diana Carey.

Manfro said the city’s deficit could continue to grow in coming years, due to increases in employee costs, pension contributions and the city’s contract with the Orange County Fire Authority. Continuing to dip into reserves to balance the budget would eat up $10 million in reserves over the next three years.

“We saved for a rainy day and the rainy day is here, but that doesn’t last forever,” said Manfro.

The City Council will vote on the budget June 26.

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