January 9, 2009

Editorial:

Nature Center appears to have been saved

Now what?

The City of Chula Vista is in dire straits, as are most other cities, trying to find $4 million savings this fiscal year (2008-09) and a projected $20 million dollar deficit for the 2009-10 fiscal year. Morale is low amongst citizens and city employees because there is no obvious, easy choice for the kind of budget trimming that is necessary. And as Chula Vista and the rest of the nation face looming deficits, all aspects of spending must be examined.

Over the last two years the city has gone through and eliminated 167 jobs and trimmed the budget by $26 million. Today the city needs to find another $4 million in cost savings. Of all the cuts suggested, the one that garnered the lion’s share of the attention has been the elimination of the Chula Vista Nature Center, combining this with the other recreation closings and reductions the city faced the potential of $1.5 million in savings.

The community rallied in support of the Nature Center and the proposed closure has been postponed for the time being. In just a few short weeks, the community raised over $330 thousand in private funds to keep the doors open. The outpouring of community support for the Nature Center turned into a feel good Christmas story, but it did very little to address city’s budget prospects.

What the Nature Center issue has done is to foster a community debate over the role of city government, taxes, and priorities for its citizens. The central question has revolved around whether it is the responsibility of government or private sources to pay for such programs as a Nature Center, a pool, libraries, an after school program, and other social service programs.

Should the city of Chula Vista scale back to the bare minimum of providing only infrastructure, police and fire protection for its citizens? This is the question that the Chula Vista city council is asking itself as they look for services and programs to cut. Or does a city have other obligations and duty to its citizens?

The primary responsibility of any city is to provide police and fire services, which in Chula Vista comprises 59% of the annual budget. A city also provides public works, engineering, planning and building, and support services all of which comprise 32% of the budget. In all of these areas have already seen their budgets cut, services curtailed, and employees either released, positions not filled, or salaries frozen if not reduced.

Further cuts are expected which means fewer police per one thousand residents, fewer fire services, more pot holes, more graffiti, and longer lines at city hall for such things as building permits.

The remaining 9% of the budget, or $9.7 million dollars annually, is spent on Recreation, which includes the nature center, and libraries.

While the city’s primary responsibility is not recreation and/or libraries, the character of any city includes quality of life services available in the community. Quality of life issues attract and retain good citizens in the community, and affect property values, crime rates, and civic pride.

The question is how do you meet your responsibilities ensuring that there are adequate police and fire services, along with the other city services, balanced with important needs of its residents such as open libraries, community pools, and clean parks?

Or is it responsible to fund (given a new budget) public safety at acceptable levels of service while temporarily sacrificing “quality of life” infrastructure and services and then asking the people of Chula Vista if they will pass a sales tax increase to keep these services and infrastructure running?

A half-cent sales tax has been a proposed from 7.75 percent to 8.25 percent. It is estimated that this will bring in about $11.7 million per year. The city pulled the half-cent tax increase from the agenda this past Tuesday, but should reappear in the next couple of meetings.

The city council also postponed further budget cuts until the Chula Vista Employees Association decides on whether to forgo its next two raises today, Friday, a move that could save the city millions of dollars. Other unions are in similar negotiations.

It appears more and more likely that in the next few months voters will be asked to add a half-cent sales tax in order to bridge the money gap until this economic tsunami subsides.

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