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City manager: Lincoln’s financials one of worst in state

By: Carol Feineman, Editor
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This isn’t a fun time for City Manager Jim Estep. Residents unhappy with cuts to the city’s budget and services are dissecting his decisions in our online comments and letters to the editor and in their conversations around town. For example, readers have lashed out about Estep’s choice to hire an assistant city manager/chief financial officer while laying off 36 employees since early 2009 because of a deficient General Fund and Estep’s $223,000 salary plus benefits in today’s economy. And The News Messenger continues to ask Estep budget and staffing-related questions he is probably tired of hearing. While it’s our job to keep asking these questions, we also realize Estep is human and has feelings. No one enjoys being hammered for how they carry out their job responsibilities. “It gets old getting beat up on,” Estep said this week when asked how hard it must be to come to work these days in the midst of the public’s increased criticism. Estep was at The News Messenger office to discuss what it’s like being a city manager during one of the most anemic financial times in the nation’s history. “It’s a very stressful position, especially now with the economic pressures,” Estep said. He attended a League of California Cities conference last week where “almost every session had to do with finances and labor relations with staff.” While the majority of cities statewide are laying off employees because the cities’ General Funds are low, according to Estep, Lincoln’s fiscal picture is one of the worst. That’s because the per capita sales tax in Lincoln is among the lowest in the state, Estep explained, and there is limited property tax money coming in. “Community members rightfully so are asking questions about prior decisions made this past decade,” Estep said, “such as expanding the police department, bringing in an in-house fire department, operational expenses well beyond what we had but we had money coming in with growth forecasts. A lot of those decisions were made on forecasts of growth that didn’t materialize.” Those decisions, made before Estep started working here, are now negatively impacting Lincoln’s General Fund. That fund pays for police, fire, library, and parks and rec department services. Since early 2009, the city manager has said that more revenue has to be brought into the city to keep services at the levels we currently have. “Every day you come to work, it is a challenge because you’re juggling so many different issues, some financial, some personnel, some development,” Estep said. The city’s 75 different revenues, from the water fund to the sewer fund to the airport fund, according to Estep, were not audited for the three years prior to his becoming city manager in 2008. “No audited finances means you’re running blind. Every year, you build your budget from your last year’s budget,” Estep said. “Without audited finances, it’s just projected revenue and projected expenses. As soon as I saw that, I shifted my focus from public works and projects at the development side (development came to a standstill) and focused my energy instead on finances and getting an audit.” Estep was attracted to Lincoln, he said, to “deal with development, building really cool community facilities and planning parks and neighborhoods.” “I came here not to be a finance director, which is what I feel like now,” Estep added. “But I’m here now, I own it, I have to fix it.” Estep credits financial consultant VTD and Assistant City Manager/Chief Financial Officer Anna Jatczak “with plowing through three years of audits in 18 months” and making sure that the accounting processes “are done properly.” I asked what he would say to those letter writers and bloggers criticizing his $223,00 salary plus benefits. “I would say I get paid what City Council thinks this job is worth,” Estep replied. “My salary is in line with other managers. It bothers me at some level when you keep hearing you’re paid too much. But most people don’t even know what I do, that I can work up to 60-hour weeks.” To illustrate his point, Estep compared the services provided by Elk Grove with services in Lincoln. He was the interim city manager at Elk Grove before taking the Lincoln city manager position. “In Elk Grove, with a population three times our size at least, the city provides no airport, no water, no wastewater, no park services,” Estep said. “They have special districts that the city has no responsibility for, including parks, wastewater, water, fire. The city provides police, planning and public works.” Lincoln, on the other hand, is “very complex” and provides airport, water, wastewater, solid waste, police, fire, public works and planning services, according to Estep. “People need to try to get a better understanding of what the city provides in the way of services,” Estep said. “It is difficult to hear people making assumptions. But city staff is trying to be efficient. It is difficult for staff morale that the community feels like the city staff is wasting tax money.” Despite the increased public scrutiny, Estep said he’s contributing to the community. “Under council direction, I feel I have the responsibility for the health and welfare of 41,000 residents,” Estep said. Estep responded immediately when I asked what he would like to tell residents. “I, along with our staff, are open to hearing ideas from the community on how we can do it better,” he said. “Come to City Hall. If I’m available, I’ll meet with them there or set up an appointment. That is the best way to provide clarity (that’s how rumors get spread around). There’s usually some answer to most questions.” Carol Feineman can be reached at carolf@goldcountrymedia.com