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Town hall meeting covers finances

By: Brandon Darnell, News Messenger Reporter
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The first in a series of meetings to educate the public on the city’s finances drew hard questions from Lincoln Hills residents. Tuesday’s town-hall meeting at the Orchard Creek Ballroom in Sun City Lincoln Hills was attended by about 200 residents and included speakers from the City Council, City Hall and the Citizens’ Financial Advisory Task Force. “It was a good meeting,” said Reg Brunner, who recently moved to Lincoln from Stanislaus County. Brunner said the cities in Stanislaus County “haven’t even begun to address the issues” Lincoln is already dealing with and he “is happy to see Lincoln taking a proactive approach.” The overview of the city’s financial situation included a discussion on shrinking revenues due to lower taxes and the state’s borrowing of about $2 million in city funds to balance its budget. “The economy is really taking its toll on the city,” said Joe Aguilar, the city’s financial consultant. According to Aguilar, the city’s expenses are on-target but revenues continue to shrink. In the 2010-2011 fiscal year, according to City Manager Jim Estep, the city will have $12.2 million in revenues for the general fund and $16 million in expenses. “That’s a huge number to overcome and we will have exhausted all of our reserves at that point,” Estep said. One option to overcome that budget shortfall as identified by the Citizens’ Financial Advisory Task Force is the institution of a utility-user’s tax. According to the task force’s chair, Richard Pearl, a 5 percent utility-tax rate would equal about $200 per household per year. The mention of that potential tax drew several questions from the audience. Audience members submitted anonymous questions and one asked if there is a reasonable priority of a tax and how it is different from the one passed in the mid-1990s that resulted in the recall of four council members. “The reasonable potential – that’s something that still has to be investigated at this point,” said Mayor Spencer Short. Both Short and City Councilman Tom Cosgrove said the difference between the tax in 1994 and the possible tax this time is that any new tax currently must be voter-approved and the tax in 1994 was approved only by the council. Another resident asked when that measure could come on the ballot and how much it would cost. According to Aguilar, the measure could appear on the June 2010 ballot at a cost to the city of about $35,000. Another audience member questioned if the city was still paying a public relations firm to lobby on its behalf at the state and federal levels. “No,” Short said. “The first thing we cut back was state and federal lobbying.” Another question asked if cities can levy income taxes. The answer, according to Aguilar, is that cities can tax almost anything but only with voter approval. One questioner asked what the city will do differently when development and growth pick up again. “Building reserves, reserves, reserves,” Estep said, adding that the city is looking at ways to ensure that new development pays “its fair share” of costs. “I think it was great to have open communication,” said Lincoln resident Joan Logue appreciated the “open communication” at the meeting. Logue said city officials were keeping the government transparent and not trying to hide anything. “It was nice to have everyone civil,” said Mary Peterson, another resident. “There’s no hiding of anything.” Lincoln resident Buzz Rognlien also appreciated having the issues addressed “head-on.” “It was very constructive,” Rognlien said. The city’s presentation on its finances as given at the meeting is available online at ci.lincoln.ca.us. The next town hall meeting will be held Oct. 20 at the Orchard Creek Ballroom, with more to follow at other locations around the city, according to spokeswoman Jill Thompson. Brandon Darnell can be reached by e-mail at brandond@goldcountrymedia.com.