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Times are tough, but SLO is well-prepared 

SLO City Council and staffers invite your input in the budget process

I don’t need to tell you how bad the recession has been. But I want to tell you about the things the City of San Luis Obispo has accomplished over the past few years to continue to provide the high-quality services expected by residents and businesses. As the city begins the process of adopting a new two-year financial plan, I think it is more important than ever that you provide input.

 The issues raised in the article “Heading for the cliff” (New Times, Sept. 30) are exactly the ones the city will be facing head-on during the upcoming financial planning process. Your role in this process is critical. But what has already been accomplished?

The city has aggressively prepared for this tough economy. Since the start of the 2009-11 Financial Plan, the city has reduced expenditures by about $14 million in recognition of lower-than-expected revenues. During this time, the city’s workforce has been reduced by 26.8 full-time equivalent positions through attrition.

 In other words, the city organization has responded to the economy by spending less, yet has continued to make substantial progress on enhancing the essential services identified as priorities for Measure Y (your half-cent sales tax). During the past three years, Measure Y has made it possible for
the city to:

• expand the city’s open space “greenbelt” by more than 1,700 acres and opened the Johnson Ranch for public use

• hire a full-time code enforcement officer to improve your neighborhoods and expanded the Student Neighborhood Assistance Program (SNAP)

• improve traffic congestion by enhancing signal operations

• improve public safety by hiring a full-time fire marshal, replace a critical “front-line” fire truck, and maintain police patrol frequencies

• install trail bridges along the City-to-Sea Bike Trail

• pave and seal streets on more than 400 city blocks

• clean 495 storm drains, removing 740,000 pounds of trash in the process

• replace 1,800 feet of storm drain pipe

• replace 11,000 square feet of sidewalk

• plant more than 300 trees

Those accomplishments could not have happened without Measure Y. Most importantly, taking good care of the city’s infrastructure is one of the most cost-effective methods to keep future costs down. The city will work diligently in the years ahead to keep the community’s financial health strong.

   As the New Times article mentioned, there are two areas where the city does not have total control over its costs, and the city is planning now for the financial impact. The City Charter requires that retirement benefits for employees be provided through the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS). Although we don’t direct the investment strategy, we are subject to the outcome. Investment losses recently experienced by CalPERS will increase our costs in the next few years, and costs will remain higher for the foreseeable future.

   Another requirement of our City Charter, approved by voters in 2000, is impartial and binding arbitration for employees represented by the San Luis Obispo Police Officers Association or the San Luis Obispo Firefighters Association, IAFF Local 3523. This means an independent arbitrator, not the City Council, makes the final decision on unresolved (after good-faith bargaining) disputes involving wages, hours, or terms and conditions of employment. Despite these challenges, the city is working hard to identify ways to contain employee costs and help provide for long-term fiscal sustainability.

 Our toughest tasks are ahead of us. I stepped into this job knowing the challenges we face, which are so similar to the challenges faced by other cities in this state and across the country. As a result, I’ve convened a Financial Sustainability Task Force, made up of engaged community members just like you, along with dedicated employees, to advise me on steps needed to make sure the city’s financial footing remains strong in the years ahead.

 The Task Force recommendations will be one of many voices the city staff and City Council will consider as we prepare the next two-year financial plan. I hope you will be one of the voices. There are several ways you can contribute:

• Look for a survey in your utilities bill and on the city’s website and provide us with your feedback

• Attend the community forum on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011, to provide your input on the next two-year financial plan

• Attend the Council Goal Setting Workshop on Saturday, Jan. 29, 2011, to provide input to the City Council on major city goals

• Come to City Council budget meetings or watch on Channel 20 and be informed.

 The City of San Luis Obispo’s hard-working, dedicated workforce, guided by your active participation, will help our community navigate through its financial challenges. As the City Council faces each new budget, it actively seeks input from residents and businesses before making spending decisions. Successful creation of the next budget is dependent on a partnership of elected officials, city employees, residents. and businesses. Together we can chart a course toward a bright and financially sustainable future for the City of San Luis Obispo. ∆

Katie Lichtig is city manager of San Luis Obispo. Send comments via the opinion editor at econnolly@newtimesslo.com.

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