Council candidates discuss fiscal challenges

(This is the third in a series examining the candidates for Petaluma City Council. This week the candidates answer questions about the city's fiscal challenges.)

With an emergency reserve fund that leaves little room for error, city staffing reduced to a minimum, and a backlog of maintenance and outdated infrastructure, the city's bleak financial situation will present a challenge for those elected this fall.

Petaluma's current City Council passed a $32.5 million budget in June that cut every department by about 5 percent from last year. The city has reduced its general fund spending by about one third since 2008, when it was about $48 million.

Sales tax revenues are beginning a slow upward climb in Petaluma and around the state. But with revenue from the new Target shopping center not expected to flow into the city coffers until the 2013-14 fiscal year, and the need for road repair, street light maintenance and restoring public safety positions increasingly urgent, the six candidates for Petaluma's three open council seats acknowledged they will have some tough choices ahead of them, but differed on solutions.

Most candidates agreed, however, that there was little room left for cost cutting and that the city should focus instead on bringing in more revenues.

Vice Mayor Tiffany Ren? said that Petaluma's problem, at this point, was a revenue one, arguing that Petaluma was already facing a backlog of important infrastructure and maintenance projects. "Reducing costs has been addressed to the detriment of our infrastructure and social safety net," she said.

"Our city departments have cut down their budgets to austere conditions," agreed Councilmember Gabe Kearney.

"I'm not sure Petaluma has the ability to further reduce costs," Former Planning Commissioner Kathy Miller said. She added, "the current budget is pretty lean and I don't anticipate having to cut it further because we should start seeing additional money to work with once Friedman's and Target open," which was a sentiment that Councilmember Mike Healy echoed.

Healy described the current budget as "a survival budget, with expenditures in several areas reduced to levels that are harmful to service levels or otherwise unsustainable."

Employee pension costs are rapidly rising, and have become a key issue in other city council races, such as the one in Healdsburg, but no Petaluma council candidate said they would prioritize pension reform. Most referenced the city's recent negotiation of a "two tier" pension system, where new hires receive a less generous pension package, as a good first step and said they would look to other cities and the state to set a precedent for additional pension reform. Businessman Jason Davies said he was looking forward to seeing if the governor's pension reform legislation would open up opportunities for more "sustainability and fiscal responsibility" in Petaluma.

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