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Petaluma city leaders agreed late Monday to tighten the budget belt one more notch.

In another round of cuts that trim about 5 percent from the 2012-13 general fund, the $32.5 million spending plan should maintain priority services and put the city on course to begin rebuilding a rainy day fund.

That's assuming tax revenues rise, pension investments perform, health care costs don't skyrocket and there aren't any major municipal emergencies.

City Council members agreed there's a lot to have heartburn about in the budget.

Vice Mayor Tiffany Renee cast the sole vote against the spending plan shortly before midnight after the council engaged in lengthy discussions on each department's revenues and spending proposals.

"I continue to be frustrated by the cuts we've had to make in services," she said. "We sort of have danced around the fact that we keep hoping it's going to change for the better. But we have not really discussed the solution for improving the situation in the future."

She proposed putting a sales-tax hike on the November ballot or at least gauging public support for it.

Mayor David Glass said that issue may be something the community can discuss in the future, but he noted that such a tax increase wouldn't provide relief until well into next year.

Every department head was asked to return suggestions to cut about 5 percent of their respective budgets, totaling about $1.5 million.

Interim Police Chief Danny Fish proposed $635,000 in cuts toward a goal of trimming $720,000 from his department's $14.4 million budget. The plan freezes a vacant police officer position, a vacant dispatcher slot and eliminates a temporary officer job.

One major decision that had the potential for controversy – whether to outsource Animal Services to a nonprofit or keep it in-house and lay off an animal control officer to save money – was solved by the collaboration of employees and volunteers.

The council agreed unanimously to pursue a contract with the Petaluma Animal Services Foundation, led by shelter workers and volunteers, to be incorporated into the final budget.

City Manager John Brown said the move "will essentially be a wash" financially, but it will offer jobs to all current city shelter employees and perhaps allow growth as a nonprofit that was impossible as a city division.

The employees would be paid less and receive drastically reduced benefits as employees of the nonprofit instead of the city. But shelter director Jeff Charter said all the employees supported the move.

Board member Sue Davy said employees were nervous but "excited to continue the work they've been doing."

Councilman Chris Albertson argued against police department cuts, saying public safety should be the city's top priority. Albertson was the city's fire chief for several years.

Councilman Mike Healy agreed, but said: "Quite frankly, I don't see any other alternative in this budget. That's the unfortunate reality."

Renee noted that while several citizens spoke in support of the Animal Services department, no one showed up to protest cuts to youth programs and services for the homeless.

"There's not a lot of uproar about this," she said. "I hope we can remember there's people in this budget."

Other cuts include discontinuing off-season maintenance at the Petaluma Swim Center and security at the Keller Street garage, totaling savings of about $90,000.

Implications of the dissolution of the redevelopment agency on the budget remained fuzzy, Finance Director Bill Mushallo said. The city is protesting an initial denial by the state of several multi-million-dollar projects the city said were locked into contracts.

The city is in ongoing talks with employee unions, but no agreements have been made. No layoffs are anticipated with the cuts agreed to Monday.

Twenty-four full-time equivalent positions were eliminated from the general fund budget last year, bringing the total number of positions cut from city payroll to 72 since 2008-09. No employees were actually laid off as the reductions were made through early retirements or eliminating, backfilling or freezing vacant positions.

The council is scheduled to returning on June 4 for formal adoption of the budget. The animal services contract could come before the council in July.

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com

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