San Clemente adopted a $131 million budget Tuesday night just ahead of the start to the next fiscal year, ending several weeks of City Council debate over whether to pursue additional cuts in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
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The 3-1 vote came after the council failed to agree on approving a budget for the next fiscal year at its meeting on June 2, with council members Gene James and Laura Ferguson citing concerns that tax revenues could take significant hits over the next year and the city should be prepared to cut as much as 15% of the budget.
“The only thing we had asked for…is just a contingency plan for 10-15%,” James said. “We were not, I don’t think we were ever suggesting to cut the budget, but we wanted to see contingencies in case we had to.”
The original deadlock over the budget was just one of over 20 votes the council has been stuck on since the departure of Mayor Dan Bane at the end of April, and the body only has until the end of the week to appoint a fifth council member to fill Bane’s seat to break future ties.
The council wasn’t originally supposed to discuss the approval of the budget at last night’s meeting, and instead was scheduled to vote on a continuing resolution that would fund basic city necessities for the next six months and require any capital improvement projects and other major expenditures to come before the body.
All public commenters unanimously called for the council to put aside their differences and pass a yearly budget, calling it a “black mark” on the city’s record if they failed to do so and that a continuing resolution is “a low bar.”
“I never thought I’d see the day when our special town would be as dysfunctional as the feds,” one commenter wrote.
But at Tuesday night’s meeting, the council chose to approve the original budget and implement strict financial reviews over the next year. The only change made to the expenditures was to hire an additional full-time lifeguard.
The council already had several discussions on the budget, including a workshop in late May that discussed leaving multiple positions vacant and limiting expenditures as much as possible over the next year.
One of the positions left vacant was the chief lifeguard position, which was why James asked for an additional full time lifeguard rather than a chief to reduce costs.
James asked the council receive monthly updates on the city’s fiscal projections, and a quarterly report that would allow members to take any actions necessary to ensure the city’s budget remained healthy during a time when tax revenues remain uncertain.
James also asked that a revenue drop of more than 1.5% be brought to the council for discussion on potential response measures.
Council members Kathy Ward and Chris Hamm agreed with James’ requests, sharing that they were happy to see the city approving an official budget and commending him for bringing it up after his earlier vote against the adoption of the budget.
Ferguson was the only vote against the budget Tuesday, and didn’t comment on the dais why she voted that way, but indicated she supported a continuing resolution instead of a budget later in the meeting.
Although approval of the budget was not on the agenda, City Attorney Scott Smith decided that since the council was discussing adopting a continuing resolution and had previously discussed the budget, the panel could adopt one without violating public meeting laws.
The council also unanimously approved the Orange County Sheriff’s Department contract separately, valued at over $17 million for the next fiscal year.
Just last month, Sheriff Don Barnes threatened to pull patrols out of San Clemente following the council’s decision not to take down fencing at the beaches that resulted in a protest where eight people were arrested.
“The City, through its Council and executive team, has made decisions that are inconsistent with our values,” Barnes wrote in a letter to the body. “The result of these decisions have and are placing our department at odds with the community we serve. The events of May 21 could and should have been avoided.”
Even after the fences came down, department spokeswoman Carrie Braun said the sheriff had not ruled out cancelling the contract.
“(Barnes’) concerns with the city are not predicated on one instance or issue. We are hopeful the city will continue to work with us,” Braun said in a text to Voice of OC.
Multiple members of the council praised the Sheriff’s Department from the dais, commending it on the lowest cost increase in eight years, despite calls from multiple public commenters that took offense to Barnes’ threat to cut the contract.
The department’s contract increased to over $17 million from $16.9 million due to higher personnel costs after the deputies’ union negotiated a pay raise with Orange County. Originally, the sheriff’s contract was set to be the only part of next year’s budget to be approved by the council on Tuesday.
“I would like to see the San Clemente council and Sheriff Barnes and command staff come to a better relationship, and I very much would be willing to reach more than halfway across the aisle for that,” James said.
Even before the council had approved the budget, it had promised not to make any cuts to the sheriff’s budget for the upcoming year in recent weeks following the sheriff’s letter.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.