Berenice Becerra, from left, Lyra Lira, Luz Lira and Refugio Lira attend the Oxnard City Council meeting on May 21 as members of the community voice opposition to budget cuts. (Photo: ANTHONY PLASCENCIA/THE STAR)
The Oxnard city budget, the subject of so many emotional discussions in recent weeks, will be under City Council scrutiny on June 5.
Members of the council have been inundated with calls, text messages and emails about the proposed ways to close a $9.2 million budget gap. When news broke about the budget, Councilwoman Gabriela Basua received 50 emails.
“My city email is off the hook right now — lots of emails every day,” said Councilman Oscar Madrigal. “Many people are lobbying for what they want.”
What many of them want is to keep the Carnegie Art Museum and Oxnard Performing Arts and Convention Center open. The nonprofits that help operate the two facilities are now frantically trying to figure out if and how to remain open without the city’s financial help.
“I’ll be damned if we go down without a fight,” said Manuel Herrera, a performing arts center board member.
The center has agreements in place through the middle of next year. A wedding is on the books in July.
But under the proposed budget, the center on Hobson Way will shutter in July unless a new agreement is in place that doesn’t include a city subsidy.
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It’s not something Councilman Bryan MacDonald is willing to let happen.
“We can’t just walk away and close the doors,” MacDonald said. “That’s not an option. I’m not going to support walking away.”
Outrage over the planned budget has been focused on the performing arts center, but the $6 million in cuts affect multiple city departments. Here are the details:
- 33 city positions will be eliminated; of those, 29 are employees who will be laid off at the end of June.
- A fire engine at Station 2 will be out of operation.
- The performing arts center, downtown art museum and La Colonia Branch Library will close; main library will close Sundays.
- Two civilian positions will be eliminated in the Oxnard Police Department.
- Hours for the youth boxing program will be cut.
- 16 of 52 groundskeeper positions in public works will be eliminated.
- The River Ridge Golf Club will no longer be subsidized but is expected to remain open. The city will pay a new operator a fee and in turn collect the revenue.
- The city will use $3 million in reserves to balance the rest of the budget.
As it currently stands, it’s a budget MacDonald can’t support.
“I think we have to go another six months without any particular cuts,” he said. “Let’s again see the number and take a look at what we can do.”
MacDonald said it’s “unacceptable” to take out a fire engine in the southernmost station.
“We’re talking about an area of a city that’s poorer and with high-density pockets,” MacDonald said. “Taking lifesaving equipment out of service doesn’t work for me.”
The latest shortfall is actually a structural deficit that has gone on for years, said Mayor Tim Flynn.
“You can’t continue kicking the can down the road. Everybody knows kicking it one too many times, they go bankrupt,” Flynn said. “We either allow the dysfunction to continue or put an end to it. I hope the council puts an end to it.”
Councilwoman Carmen Ramirez said no city in California should use up its reserves with a recession or earthquake on the horizon. To keep all the services at current levels, the city would be forced to dip deep into its reserves.
“Where else can we cut? It’s tragic,” Ramirez said. “We have some hard choices. But if we overspend, we’re going to be in bankruptcy.”
Rising pension costs are to blame for why Oxnard is finding difficulty making ends meet. But the city is also paying for myriad mistakes that are years, or decades, in the making.
The city must pay $1.9 million to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System this year to make up for mismanaging the hours of more than 150 employees classified as temporary or part-time. These workers, some dating back to the 1990s, worked enough hours to be enrolled in CalPERS but weren’t.
Another example of mismanagement is the approximately 140 employees who were working full time but not getting full-time benefits. When those workers were eventually converted to full-time status several years ago, it added $5 million to $6 million to the annual budget.
Mismanagement of the landscape maintenance districts, the system in which some neighborhoods pay for landscaping, cost the city $4.4 million.
Fiscal failures, which were the subject of an FBI raid of City Hall and a district attorney investigation in the early 2010s, were many years in the making and will take a long time to fully resolve, said City Manager Alex Nguyen, who has led four community meetings on the budget.
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Meanwhile, as these mistakes are uncovered, City Hall appeared to have a revolving door in the offices of the executive team. In the past decade, there have been six different assistant city managers, six different chief finance officers and seven different fire chiefs.
“When this happens, good things are not likely to happen for the organization, bad things are easier to happen and innovative things are not likely to happen at all,” Nguyen said.
No organization, private or public, can thrive with this much turnover, Nguyen said.
“Name me a sports franchise that can go to the Super Bowl when this happens,” he said. “You can’t be successful and you can’t be high-performing if people won’t stay.”
Mayor Tim Flynn gives instructions to members of the community wishing to speak during public comments at the Oxnard City Council meeting on Tuesday as members of the community voice opposition to budget cuts. (Photo: ANTHONY PLASCENCIA/THE STAR)
Since Nguyen was hired in July, he has had to fill six vacancies on the executive team, which he recently completed with the appointment of a new cultural and community services director.
What has made the latest budget difficult to swallow for some in the community is seeing new hires among the city’s top brass while services to the public are poised to be eliminated. In order to correct more than 100 financial mistakes unveiled in a 2016 audit, the latest budget calls for hiring two positions in the finance department.
Meanwhile, fire and police officials will see a significant increase in the city’s health insurance contributions after a new labor agreement. The council backed that decision, saying Oxnard’s contributions have been historically low compared to neighboring agencies.
“It makes no sense,” said Jim Lavery, a public speaker at a recent council committee meeting. “The optics are terrible.”
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Although many community members feel blindsided by these proposed cuts, some on the council knew they were coming. When the city looked at ways to slash the budget last year, Police Chief Scott Whitney, who was serving as interim city manager at the time, gave warnings.
“When I knew the deficit was somewhere between $9 or $10 million, I automatically knew arts and possibly recreation were going to be targets,” Flynn said. “There’s never a situation where culture and arts are prioritized over public safety.”
Councilman Bert Perello said while listening to pleas to save the performing arts center, he hasn’t heard of suggestions to cut elsewhere.
Perello said part of his decision-making process is whether he believes the city manager presenting the budget. He said while he didn’t believe in the previous city manager, he now has confidence in Nguyen and the current finance team.
For the two new council members who have been on the job for about five months, the news came as a shock.
Lopez said hearing about the proposed closures made her sick to her stomach.
Basua said it was tough to process all the comments during the last City Council meeting, which featured more than 50 speakers.
“As a member of council who has young children, I really feel the emotion and the outrage of why aren’t we doing better,” Basua said. “It’s my hope we will be doing better soon.”
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Basua said she’s concentrating on the next fiscal year and making sure regular financial reports are available.
“Do not come back next year and it’s another $9 million (gap.) That would be totally unacceptable,” Basua said.
To generate revenue, the city is looking to sell surplus property and potentially collect a cannabis tax. The city is also preparing for the development of the 250-acre Sakioka Farms, which is adjacent to Highway 101 between Del Norte Boulevard and Rice Avenue. Another possibility is to allow highway billboards that would generate fees to the city.
Another sales tax could be considered for a future ballot. The city currently has Measure O, which is a half-cent sales tax.
“I believe we need at least another penny from sales tax,” Nguyen said.
None of these revenue options will come by June 18, when the council is expected to adopt the budget.
Lopez said she’s interested in learning all the options. The way she sees it, the council’s consideration of the city budget is similar to considering a personal budget. When looking to cut, you pay for utilities and groceries while getting rid of more expendable expenses like restaurant outings and movies.
Madrigal believes the council could make some minor changes to what’s proposed.
“As it currently stands, there may be tweaks, but revamping the whole thing … we’re too far along in the process,” he said.
The City Council will consider the budget during a special meeting at 6 p.m. June 5. It will adopt the budget during a council meeting at 6 p.m. June 18. Both meetings will be at the City Council Chambers, 305 W. Third St.
Wendy Leung is a staff writer for the Ventura County Star. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 805-437-0339. You can also find her on Twitter @Leung__Wendy.
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