Without an extension of a voter-approved sales tax increase, Westminster officials say there’s a $17 million budget deficit on the horizon — one they can only sate with an equal amount in spending cuts.
Among the city’s anticipated funding casualties: entire police department bureaus, a city staff unit dealing with blighted areas, and scores of part-time city yard employees. Other areas like youth and senior services, parks, and top City Hall departments would sustain financial hits as well, according to staff.
The deficit — projected for the 2022-23 fiscal year — stems from the looming expiration of a voter-approved, 1% sales tax hike that took effect in 2017.
Unless council members vote to put an extension of the tax on the ballot soon, the money will dry up after the tax increase expires in 2022 and the looming budget hole would require “deep cuts to basic city services, and affect the possibility of additional services related to economic recovery,” according to a budget presentation that’s scheduled to be made at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.
The city has been using the new tax money to stabilize its finances from the get-go, preventing cuts to local services like public safety, which eats up 75% of the city’s budget, according to the report.
Officials for more than a year have warned of the tax increase’s expiration, and are now realizing the anticipated deficit’s full effects.
For council members like Sergio Contreras, the report “definitely rings alarm bells.”
“We have some serious belt-tightening to do figuring out how to move forward. It’s devastating,” he said.
Asked whether he felt urgency to put an extension of the sales tax on the ballot, he said: “Right now I think everything’s on the table.”
Councilman Tai Do said they’ll “have to look into or figure out a way to cut down on spending as soon as possible… Hopefully, we would be able to do more with less.”
On a possible sales tax extension, he said “it would have to go back to voters sooner rather than later.”
Councilman Charlie Nguyen refused to comment on the report, opting instead to wait until tonight’s meeting to make public remarks on the city’s fiscal forecast.
Grim Predictions for City Services
The police department — which this fiscal year got more than $33 million — would feel one of the deficit’s biggest blows, with $12 million in estimated cuts in the 2022-23 fiscal year. That includes, among other potential cuts, the elimination of 21 officers, ⅓ of the city’s police cars, the traffic bureau, almost all of the detective bureau, and a school resource officer position that had recently been created.
“Just last year, there were more than 38,000 9-1-1 calls in Westminster that required emergency medical attention,” reads the budget report. “The city has additional needs to train law enforcement to interact with people with mental illness and those experiencing homelessness to ensure our neighborhoods, parks, business districts and other public areas are safe and secure for everyone.”
The city’s cuts would also pummel the public works department, with its funding expected to be reduced by $2.3 million. Major layoffs would be on the way, starting with all part-time employees at the city yard, along with maintenance workers and engineers. The frequency of parks and medians maintenance would be reduced to once a month.
The community development department — which is in charge of land use controls, building construction regulation, and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds — would see an expected $1.1 million in cuts in the 2022-23 fiscal year. The community preservation unit, which addresses blighted areas of the city, would be eliminated entirely.
Nearly $1 million potentially would be slashed from the community services department, with the department director position — and the department’s oversight — eliminated completely, as well as the senior center supervisor, meaning the senior center would become a part-time facility.
Among the cuts to that department would include the project SHUE, a mentorship program that pairs at-risk elementary school-age children with senior volunteers.
City Hall administration would see a possible $1.3 million cut, with the elimination of all paid City Council commissions, part-time wages at the City Manager’s office, three employees at the City Clerk’s office, all support staff at human resources, and four employees at the finance department.
The sales tax money has already been taking hits from the novel coronavirus pandemic after stay home orders and social distancing restrictions closed businesses and crippled the local economy, staff say. The money staff anticipated from the sales tax increase this year went down from nearly $13 million to just under $12 million.
This fiscal year is expected to end with a $1 million deficit, according to the budget report.
“Now, more than ever, residents are relying on the critical services the city provides including 9-1-1 emergency response and emergency medical services,” staff say in the report. “Given revenue reductions and the upcoming sunset of locally-controlled funds, it will be difficult to ensure our community is prepared for future medical emergency or natural disasters.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.