Second Thoughts: Defeating Tracy’s deficit
by Jon Mendelson
Jun 15, 2012 | 3402 views | 7 7 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Six is the number of consecutive years the city of Tracy has run a deficit. But three is likely a more important number to City Manager Leon Churchill, who says that’s how many years it will take to determine if the city can balance its general fund budget without the help of the Measure E half-cent sales tax.

“We will know at that time (July 1, 2015) whether the city can continue to deliver the services we have historically enjoyed, and we will also know if it can be done without Measure E,” he wrote me just before the City Council unanimously passed its 2012-13 fiscal year budget June 5.

Churchill called next fiscal year’s budget — which includes a $49.9 million general fund that needed $2.2 million in reserve money — an “incremental step,” part of a larger strategy to erase chronic deficits by 2016, when Measure E expires. It was enacted by voters in 2010.

The eight-step program includes using outside contractors for some services, improving technology, reducing the number of city departments (and therefore department heads) and shrinking the workforce through early retirements. According to Finance Director Zane Johnston, Tracy eliminated the equivalent of 90 full-time positions even before those steps were rolled out.

The plan also counts on the economy to shake out of its stupor.

While the expense side of the equation can be controlled by the city to a great extent, there’s much less the city can do when it comes to revenue.

Johnston has said economic development — building up the Northeast Industrial Area and future projects at the Cordes Ranch and Gateway sites — is “one of the things I know can help this community” in terms of raising tax receipts.

But that effort, which appears to be sincere and robust, isn’t all it will take to right the revenue picture.

Churchill knows the city can’t square the budget circle without boosted sales tax receipts and a stop to a half-decade decline in property tax rolls.

“The financial strategy hinges a great deal on revenue growth the next four years,” Churchill said.

Jeffrey Michael, director of the University of the Pacific Business Forecasting Center, believes the Central Valley is on the rebound from the Great Recession.

“We’ve definitely, I think, turned the corner,” he said.

Though our region has so far lagged other areas of the state, Michael said the unemployment rate is dropping and workers are being added to payrolls.

Though he called the situation “still terrible,” he said there’s reason for optimism.

“It’s something I think we can sustain,” Michael said, “even despite the worries that are out there about the broader economic recovery at this point.”

The property tax outlook, however, lacks even that pale rose tint.

San Joaquin County Assessor Kenneth Blakemore has predicted another year of declining revenue. And no one knows when property values will gain ground again.

Indeed, counting on revenue growth in this economy is a big bet by the city. And it’s not Tracy’s only gamble when it comes to the budget-balancing game.

The eight-step plan predicts saving $3 million or so from new labor union contracts.

The current accords, Churchill said, expire July 1, 2015. They tie the city to some expenses it cannot control, such as increases in what must be paid to the California Public Employees Retirement System.

The results of those contract negotiations will have a lot to say, Churchill added, about whether the city ends its days of deficits.

Any red ink not blotted up will force the city to make a choice once Measure E lapses: Live without the increased revenue and chop services, or ask voters to extend the tax in some form.

Though mentioned only in passing — and even then only in guarded tones — it’s clear a discussion is brewing about renewing Measure E, and groundwork is being laid for a campaign on its behalf several years down the road.

If the budget isn’t balanced by the time Measure E expires, Churchill said, there would be few efficiency gains left to make. Cuts at that point, he said, “would seriously alter the quality of life in the community.”

As a second option, “… the renewal of Measure E would deserve consideration,” he added.

In statements to the City Council, Churchill, Johnston and other staff members have unflinchingly committed to closing Tracy’s chronic budget gap in hopes the Measure E conversation never gets beyond this early speculation.

Which well they should.

Since its passage, elected and appointed leaders repeatedly said their goal was to not need Measure E past 2016.

About 58.3 percent of the voters, apparently committed to maintaining public safety and other essential services, trusted the pronouncement and taxed themselves.

Given those promises and that trust, a second round might be a tough sell, even if the city does all it can to make Measure E a one-shot deal.

• Second Thoughts is a personal opinion column by Editor Jon Mendelson. Share your thoughts at
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June 21, 2012
I agree. The city staff is a white elephant. They are paying big bucks for mediocre service. They waste tax payers money on frivolous services and big salaries for people who sit in nice offices doing nothing much all day.......a secret they all know.
June 21, 2012
After watching the City Council meeting last Tuesday I get the feeling Tracy's deficit will never be defeated. At least not as long as the current city staff is allowed to try to fix it.

Anyone intellegent person who watched the discussion on the Ellis project and its relationship to the swim center will be probably agree.

This city staff has asked the City Council to give $8 million in concessions and water rights in order to gain $10 million toward the cost of the swim center. The funny thing is the big ticket item for the swim center (the competition swimming pool) won't be built with the $10 million because it's not proposed until Phase II of the project.

I couldn't believe it when I heard the Parks and Rec Department Head confirm that fact. It seems the support for the Ellis project is beginning to fade and Ives and his band of fools (Churchill, Soderngren, Malik, etc) are starting to look even more foolish than usual.

June 18, 2012
Now I see why they call it "second thoughts".
June 16, 2012
So the special interests that benefited from the half-cent sales tax increase are gearing up for a sales tax extension.

Tracy is only about 20 minutes from Stockton but, remarkably, voters don't seem to see the parallels. When public safety unions dominate local politics, citizens start working for them rather than them working for us.

June 15, 2012
Is it any surprise that the politicians and civil servants are looking at re-upping Measure E? Look at our City Council - all 5 of those guys work or worked for governmental agencies (Ives - Lawrence Livermore Lab, Elliott - the military, Maciel - the Tracy Police Dept., Abercrombie - Hayward Police department, Rickman - California Highway Patrol). They never have known what it's like to make a payroll or keep a business running - they always got their checks courtesy of us taxpayers, and the ones that are retired are getting their nice taxpayer-funded pensions. Time to start putting people on the Council that have worked in the real world, i.e. private sector.
June 15, 2012
behonestguys is right.

We need to completely change the face of the city council by electing people who have experience running a business, not current and retired public employees.

It is clear the current council, and city staff, have no intention of fixing the problems with Tracy's budget shortage, they think they can tax their way out of the shortage.

That's like trying to dig your way out of a hole. It doesn't work.

June 15, 2012
Already talking about renewal!

Told you that temporary is the new forever!

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