Council agonizes over breaking promises
Political commitments kept Mammoth Lakes Town Council members from making serious, and potentially necessary cuts to Mammoth’s proposed 2011-2012 budget at Wednesday night’s meeting.
Projecting a budget shortfall next year of more than $2.6 million, Town staff presented Council with “balancing options” totaling $2,776,011 in order to give Council a small amount of wiggle room when choosing where to make cuts.
As the saying goes, however, when you give someone an inch they’ll take a mile, and at the end of the evening, Council as a body had refused just under $1 million of the proposed cuts. Leaving a large portion of the shortfall still on the table.
The main hang-ups were the political commitments that previous councils have made to the community over the years, mainly with Measure A and T dollars. Councils in the past verbally committed these dollars to housing and transit in order to help win voter approval for the tax measures.
For example, when it came time to review a 10 percent cut to Mammoth Lakes Housing, Council member Matthew Lehman was all for it, pointing out that by the nature of the economy, the community was already experiencing affordable housing even in market rate units.
Council member Rick Wood however, rebutted. “The voters specifically said they wanted a half a point [of Measure A] to go to housing and I won’t violate that political commitment.”
Wood used the same argument for Measure T dollars. When the Town passed Measure T, it told voters that a percentage of the T.O.T. (Transient Occupancy Tax) increase would be dedicated to the Eastern Sierra Transit Authority (ESTA). Wood and Councilman John Eastman sat on the councils that originally made these political commitments.
Other Coumcilmembers posited that a change in circumstances should allow a revisitation of these commitments. “We are facing something with the judgment [Hot Creek] that we have never faced before,” said Mayor Pro Tem Jo Bacon. Councilman Matthew Lehman agreed.
“We can’t got through a voting cycle every time there is a change,” he said.
But Wood was adamant. “Measures R and U were passed by a two-third vote because the community did not trust the Council to keep its political commitments,” Wood said. “If we can’t handle the deficit without reneging on political commitments then we are not doing our job as Councilmembers.”
Raising the question then of where the remaining money to make up the shortfall would come from since there isn’t a whole lot left to choose from besides additional staff layoffs.
“Tonight’s process has left about $900,000 still unfunded,” said Interim Town Manager Marianna Marysheva-Martinez. “We need to take a closer look at where we are going to cut.”
Citizen Rick McAteer felt that the Council needed to prioritize.
“It was pointed out at the beginning of the meeting that you have a structural deficit, which means you are spending more than you have,” he said. “Everyone knows that the Town has a problem so they won’t be shocked [with serious cuts]. You either play games or you look at what the Town is going to provide.”
Council did make it clear that there were several items they were not going to provide. It agreed unanimously on a 10 percent cut to the Town’s contract with the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, a 15 percent cut to the High Sierra Energy Foundation, a 10 percent cut to fishing enhancement, a 100 percent cut to the $125,000 set aside for the Sherwin Street culvert replacement project, elimination of funding for the Town Clerk’s Law Library subscription, and a 10 percent cut to funding for 2012 July 4 fireworks (which would reduce a 25 minute show by 5 minutes) and Pops in the Park with the caveat that Town staff look for a July 4 partner who may be able to fill the gap.
All council members except Mayor Skip Harvey supported a 50 percent cut to structural improvements at the police department (who wanted full funding), and a 10 percent cut to local programs was supported by all except Lehman (who wanted 25%).
Saved! (for now)
Items that escaped the budget chopping block on Wednesday.
Mammoth Lakes Tourism: Council members Wood, Eastman and Lehman were against a 10 percent cut to this department. Bacon felt that the cut should be made but that MLT should choose where to make it, while Mayor Harvey felt the department should be cut even more, by 25 percent.
Mammoth Lakes Trails and Public Access: Eastman, Wood and Harvey said no cuts, but Bacon and Lehman said make the cut but let MLTPA decide where to implement it.
IE Consulting: This group is heading the budget document makeover. As some may recall, locals Deb Pierrel and Joyce Turner have been working on a new way to present a readable budget to the community. One balancing option was to only fund IE Consulting 50 percent of the agreed upon price for the new contract and defer the other half of the payment until after the settlement with Hot Creek is reached. Pierrel told Council that if it were unsure if it would be able to provide the second half of the payment down the road then she would have to reevaluate the project.
“We are working on a full document,” Pierrel explained. The majority of Council felt the entire amount should be earmarked for IE Consulting at this time.
Sprung structure at the airport: Council wanted the entire cost of the structure ($275,000) to be factored into the bottom line, rather than only one-third as staff had currently done. Staff had been assuming that the same partners that deal with summer air subsidy (the Town, Mammoth Mountain and Mono County) would help pay for the sprung structure, but Council wasn’t so sure.
Road Rehabilitation: Rather than cut this fund by $500,000, leaving $375,000 to work with, the majority of Council wished to flip the numbers, cutting $375,000 and leaving $500,000.
Vehicle replacement: Lehman and Bacon supported not funding vehicle replacement for FY 11/12 for a savings of $143,000, but remaining Council members did not support the cut, again because of prior political commitments made by Council.
Ice rink slab: The ice rink slab is currently a closed session item and the discussion had to be deferred.
Council will reconvene at a special meeting on June 8 (Suite Z, 4 p.m.) to discuss further budget cutting options.
Hot Creek settlement update
On Friday, May 27 legal representatives of MLLA appeared via court call in the Mammoth Lakes branch of the Mono County Superior Court. The topic: attorney fees owed to MLLA by the Town of Mammoth on top of the judgment.
Judge Roger Randall heard the motion and granted all but approximately $3,000 of the $1,062,390 MLLA requested.
The Town Council awarded the contract for the construction and installation of the Mammoth Creek Park Playground equipment to Playscapes Construction, Inc. The project is expected to come in $11,500 under budget and the equipment is expected to be in place before the July 4 weekend.
Council also approved the zoning code amendment for the sign code update, which the Planning Commission has been working on for several months. The updated code is suppose to allow more flexibility for business signage by allowing things such as internally lit signs, as well as temporary banner signs. Council member Rick Wood opined that the reason there was no public comment regarding the update was because the Planning Commission and Town staff had done such a good job. Tom Cage opined it was because no one had time to read the 144-page document that describes the changes.
“They were working on this from February to April, which is a pretty busy time [for businesses],” Cage told The Sheet the next day. “I think staff did a good job, but even if you have the greatest sign ordinance in the world, if no one is going to enforce it then what does it matter?”
The TOT (Transient Occupancy Tax) compliance and enforcement ordinance was updated by staff and approved by Council on Wednesday. Changes to the ordinance “tidy up definitions and clarify things,” according to Town Attorney Andrew Morris, but only apply to condos at this time. They do not address illegal rentals of single-family homes, which is the next step of the TOT process that Council members John Eastman and Rick Wood do not want staff and the lodging community to forget about.
Morris added that some pieces of the current code could be used to enforce compliance on single-family homes, but agreed that more teeth were still needed.
“It’s not the full suite of tools, but it’s a start,” Morris said. “We can still go after them for TOT if we discover them.”
“But if we collect TOT aren’t we condoning their actions,” Eastman asked.
“Well, the IRS will cheerfully collect [tax] on illegal incomes, even though they are not condoning them,” Morris pointed out.
Spring Measure R recommendations were presented to Council for final approval. Oddly enough, two of the applications that were filed by the Town and recommended by the Recreation Commission on May 17 were pulled from consideration before Wednesday evening. The two applications were $10,000 for the Community Center CEQA Environmental and $57,000 for the Multi-Use Facility and Ice Rink Slab.
When Recreation Commission Chair Bill Sauser asked why the Town’s applications were withdrawn, he received, as he called it, “the deer in the headlights look” from Council.
“Shouldn’t you just pass the package as a whole so we have those funds if they are needed and don’t have to wait until the next cycle,” Sauser continued to probe.
Mayor Pro Tem Jo Bacon finally explained that the pulling of the two applications related to closed session items, so Council was unable to give an explanation.
Council approved funding for the remaining Measure R applications.