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City Council Gets Early Peek at New Budget; Chamber of Commerce Contract Approved

Photo by Alhambra Source.

Location

Alhambra , CA

The Alhambra City Council continued its new normal floating schedule Wednesday night conducting its special meeting by audio and, adding Zoom video. The meeting was held at the Reese Hall at the Alhambra Public Library and, for the first time in weeks, the council, city manager and some city staffers were in the same room. 

City Manager Jessica Binnquist provided a COVID-19 update as it relates to Alhambra saying that the city sponsored testing program concludes at 4 p.m. Friday and will have been successful in providing about 1,600 tests. As of last Friday, she said, there were 28 recorded positive tests.

She also said that final steps in allocating money in the city’s housing relief lottery tied to the COVID-19 emergency had been delayed. On May 11, Mayor Ross J. Maza drew the names of 250 households that applied for the funds but many of those applicants did not meet the criteria for assistance and were disqualified. Others, it seems, have been slow in submitting supporting paperwork to the city. It may be that additional names will now need to be drawn to complete the process.

And Binnquist noted that County Supervisor Chair Kathryn Barger was pushing for a waiver from the state so certain communities may resume more normal business activities.  

Vice Mayor David Mejia quickly urged the council and city staff to get ahead of this effort and find ways to fast track changes in city procedures or ordinances that may be helpful to businesses — primarily restaurants — to hit the ground running when state curbs are lifted.

The key item on the agenda involved the city’s financial underpinnings as it creates a monetary plan for the rest of 2020 and into 2021. Pearl Lieu, the city’s director of finance, walked the council through a budget study session, for informational purposes only, with a powerpoint presentation.

The presentation, which detailed revenue scenarios including expected shortfalls, focusing on the all important tax income that fuels city services. As currently scheduled, there will be a public meeting to review this information on June 8 and the council will take a deeper dive at that time. As now scheduled, the June 23 meeting will focus on approving the spending plan.

The sales tax numbers were stark: a decline of 67% is expected in that revenue stream from Auto Row. Restaurant sales taxes are expected be down 70%. Fuel and service station taxes down 60% and 45% in business and industry. 

Measure AL, a sales tax passed by voters in March shortly before the shutdown, was expected to bring in $8.1 million in the first year. That figure has been revised downward and is now a projected $7.3 million. Total sales tax revenue is expected to drop $3.78 million next year.

The presentation looked not only at 20-21 but into the next three years and perhaps most worrisome overall was the unknown impact that the current economic crisis would have on CalPers – the California Public Employees’ Retirement System pension funding in 2022-2023. At present the city has $150 million in pension liabilities on the books and they will come due over time.

Lieu talked about specific parts of the budget noting that the general fund is very tight but still in the black with revenues projected at $71 million and expenditures at $69.8 million.

While segments of the budget may look more problematic over the long term, the numbers presented to the council indicated a narrowly balanced budget for the 20-21 fiscal year with apparently no layoffs or furloughs. 

Strategic Planning and the Budget

During public comment by phone and email there was much concern on the budgeting process to date. Many questioned why the budgetary process this year had not been accompanied by the City Council’s Strategic Planning Meeting. This annual session generally helps establish a vision for the city over the next 12 months and offers an ability to view the budget with that vision in mind. Efforts to hold the Strategic Planning Meeting, usually an all-day session with department heads from city staff also present to answer questions, have been stymied on at least two occasions by the coronavirus lockdown.

Some callers expressed dismay that this budget study material was not available to residents with the agenda material for Wednesday night’s meeting. The general view was that the public should have time to study and review the data. It was not immediately clear when the budget material would be on the city site.

In council comment on this item, Council Member Jeff Maloney expressed concern about the traditional linkage of the strategic planning meeting and budget. He wondered if an additional council meeting in June would be helpful to give both council and community members time to examine the budget.

This is Not an Emergency

Next on the agenda was a city staff request for guidance from the council on a request from the vendor operating Almansor Court to provide $1.25 million for upgrades at the city-owned event space including remodeling of the Lakeview Room, upgraded landscaping and irrigation. The money would have to come from the city’s emergency fund as there is no other funding source available. 

This item brought much public comment in opposition with some wondering why the item was on the agenda at all considering the serious fiscal times the city and many of its residents are facing.

“It is not an emergency to refurbish a facility that cannot be used now and may not in the near future,” one resident wrote in an email to the city. 

“The refurbishment of Almansor Court is not an emergency and can wait,” wrote another. 

And the litany of comment went on like that.

Maloney, who was strongly opposed to dipping into the emergency fund at this time, put a bit more context on the question. He noted that Almansor Court is owned by the city and is unique to the area. And, as landlords, there is an obligation in normal times to keep the facility in good repair. “All that said, this is a really difficult time and we just heard a budget presentation where the city is barely getting by.” He concluded by saying that he didn’t think he could “support an expenditure from the city’s emergency fund at this point.”

Council member Adele Andrade-Stadler agreed saying “Almansor Court has to be losing a lot of money in these unprecedented times but using emergency funds would be inappropriate. This is not an emergency.”

Vice Mayor Mejia and Council member Katherine Lee agreed with the idea that as property owners it was important to maintain the facility but Mejia said “I don’t believe we can spend this kind of money. I wouldn’t sleep well if we spent it.”

And Lee agreed that this was not an appropriate use of emergency funds.

Maza agreed with the overall context and the prevailing view left city staff with the clear direction to try to work with the vendor on limited repairs and the city would revisit the bigger question in better times.

A twelve item consent agenda was next up for discussion with two major issues of concern to residents and local businesses.

Item six was the approval of funding for fiscal year 2020-2021 with the Alhambra Central Business District Association for the promotion of activities in the central business district for the 2020-2021 fiscal year. The initial dollar figure here is about $7,000 of what could be tens of thousands of dollars.

Item seven called for the approval of a new contract with the Alhambra Chamber of Commerce for a wide variety of promotional activities to attract, retain and support business throughout the city. The amount of that contact was not to exceed $111,936 for the fiscal year 2020 and 2021. 

Wide Range of Support

Callers and emails seemed to overwhelmingly support these institutions and the work they do to promote business interests in the city. Supporters included J. Craig Statten, the president of the Atherton Baptist Homes and Sister Kathleen Callaway, the president of Ramona Convent Academy.

Andrew Luthi, the owner of the Ohana Brewing Company, a small microbrewery on First Street near Main Street, voiced his support for the downtown association.

“The Alhambra Central Business District Association is absolutely essential to weather this crisis,”  he said, adding that his best day of business last year was the St. Patrick’s Day Pub Crawl that the Central Business District Association sponsored. 

But several others questioned the lack of oversight in the contracts noting that a request by Councilwoman Adele Andrade-Stadler last year for an audit had revealed limited public information on how taxpayer money — in the case of the Chamber contract — was spent. 

It was clear from the phone and emailed comments that there was a perception that a lack of support for these two items would further harm city business at a precarious and uncertain time. 

All of the council members voiced support for the measures and for local business.

“This is a no-brainer at this time,” said Maza.

“One team, one Alhambra. We need to help each other out,” said Mejia.

A motion was put forth and seconded to support both items. 

Language in Contract Questioned

But just before the vote, Lee looked at the language of the chamber contract, which contained no dollar figures for specified services, and said that made her uncomfortable. 

Her opposition, it seemed was not so much about spending the money, but in the language of the contracts which she maintained were flawed.

The vote on items six and seven were 4 to 1 in each case with Lee opposing both measures.

Other items on the consent agenda included the authorization of the request for proposal for homeless crisis housing, street outreach and case management services. Union Station Homeless Services has been operating street outreach services to the city since 2017.  A summer lunch program contract was also approved. The full agenda with the consent items and supporting material at the bottom may be found here.

Missed the council meeting? Click here for a link to the zoom session.

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