The Fullerton City Council voted to cut overall spending by 2.5%, keep some staff positions vacant and use around $12 million in federal pandemic bailout dollars to backfill lost tax revenue to address a deficit.
Fullerton council members mirrored an approach taken by nearby cities — like Anaheim and Santa Ana — to make up for lost revenue when local businesses took a severe hit when business dropped off the cliff during the pandemic.
The decision brings the city’s emergency reserve level to 17% and came after 1 a.m. at their Tuesday meeting on a narrow 3-2 vote. Councilmen Ahmad Zahra and Jesus Silva were the dissenting votes.
In a Wednesday phone interview, Zahra said he’s concerned the cuts will layer on more problems to an already overworked staff, like police officers and public works employees.
“Our services are already compromised and you can easily see that just walking down in our parks,” he said. “The level of public safety has been deteriorating as far as response time and the ability for our police to actually perform good public safety as required for a city this size.
“Compromising our services even further than what they already are — it’s just not a good thing for our city or our residents.”
During Tuesday’s meeting, Councilman Nick Dunlap said it doesn’t take a “financial guru” to understand future issues if the budget wasn’t cut.
“It’s not so much that you want to make the cuts because nobody wants to make the cuts — and it’s easier not to and that’s why we’ve seen these decisions made year after year, decade after decade. That’s why our streets and infrastructure largely reflect those decisions,” said Dunlap at the meeting.
For years, residents have complained to city council members about the deteriorating roads in the city. Some council members are looking to use federal bailout money to fix the roads.
Fullerton’s share of the federal bailout money is nearly $33 million and like other OC cities, they received half of that money back in May.
The city has allocated nearly $1.3 million of that money for more beds at the homeless shelter and almost $150,000 towards the Fullerton museum, according to a staff report.
Meanwhile, Fullerton’s budget has been in freefall for over a year.
In September 2020, city staff said without major changes the city’s general fund could be over $20 million in the hole by 2027.
Along with the cuts, officials are also looking to use some of Fullerton’s share of the federal pandemic bailout money to backfill lost tax revenue.
At the meeting Tuesday, council members also voted to use nearly $12 million to backfill lost revenue.
Other cities in the county are also planning to use much of their bailout money to backfill lost tax revenue over the pandemic, like Laguna Hills.
In Santa Ana — a city expected to receive a total of $128 million in COVID relief — plan to use some of the money towards a memorial for COVID deaths, potentially creating their own public health department, community mental health services and to backfill lost tax revenue.
Some cities are using some of that federal money for community projects, while others are investing in infrastructure.
In September, Huntington Beach City Councilmembers unanimously approved a spending plan for their nearly $30 million dollars in federal bailout money which includes building a skatepark, permanent supportive housing, business loans and broadband infrastructure improvements throughout the city.
And in San Clemente, officials are looking to use their $7.5 allocation towards a new city council meeting room as well as repairing and updating infrastructure projects in the city.
When Fullerton City Council members adopted the new budget earlier this year, they directed staff to come back with various budget cut plans.
Council members also held a study session in August and one in September to discuss potential adjustments to the budget.
Since then, the budget adjustments and the city allocation of the American Rescue Act Plan money has come up at three city council meetings and each time council members deadlocked, unable to reach a decision before Tuesday’s meeting.
It looked as though the council was about to hit another deadlock at their Tuesday meeting after several motions for various cuts failed to pass on the dais.
Silva proposed a 1% budget cut, but his motion died for lack of support from his colleagues.
The 1% budget cut under consideration included getting rid of a couple of police officers and firefighters, cutting water at parks by 10%, eliminating Parks & Recreation events like the fishing derby and the tree lighting ceremony.
Council members have yet to decide on how to spend the remaining bailout money, which amounts to close to $20 million.
Besides the cuts, council members voted to not fill 38 vacant city positions in an effort to save nearly $4 million.
Some residents and city employees called on the council not to make cuts, but rather use the American Rescue Plan Act money to address the deficit.
“The ARPA plan was passed in part to provide the resources that the city needs to prevent the cuts to services,” said Ed Bargas, president of the Fullerton Municipal Employees Federation at the meeting.
In the Wednesday phone interview, Zahra said the bailout money could have closed the deficit and that the incoming cuts could fully defund up to 18 additional vacant positions.
“We have extremely low staffing levels, and our current staff can’t keep up with demand of the services in the city and so we need to fill some of these positions in order for us to sort of replenish some of the services,” Zahra said Wednesday.
Others disagree with Zahra and feel the action was necessary to avoid financial issues in the future.
“There seems to be a lack of understanding that taking current vacant positions and refilling them actually moves us further away from being able to have a balanced budget and puts us in jeopardy to have the same arguments next year and the year after that,” said Councilman Bruce Whitaker at the meeting.
“Even if we were to cut currently long, unfilled positions, in any budget year, they could be added back in.”
Noah Biesiada contributed to the reporting in this article.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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