SOUTH PASADENA — Faced with a $172,000 budget shortfall this year following voters' defeat of a proposed 4% utility tax, the City Council has adopted an emergency plan to "get through July" by temporarily eliminating city-financed tree trimming and sharply cutting street sweeping services.
The council, which imposed a hiring freeze three weeks ago, also erased a long-delayed project to waterproof the walls of the city library and a program to maintain median strips on city streets.
The slashed programs should be restored in July, when the city begins a new budget year, according to the plan.
City Manager John Bernardi said this year's deficit results from a projected revenue shortfall of $105,000 and an expected expense of $67,500 to hire four jailers to staff a city jail that will open next month when the Police Department occupies a new facility on Mission Street. The city's annual budget is $12 million.
Critics of the cuts, which could force homeowners to pay for pruning trees in front of their property, immediately called Wednesday's action "an effort to punish the voters."
But Mayor James Hodge heatedly denied that the council was reacting punitively to the defeat of the tax proposal, which had been supported by four of the five council members and a broad segment of the city's establishment. "People who voted for the measure live on the same streets as opponents," he said. "We wouldn't want to punish them. Suspending tree trimming doesn't have to be considered a punishment. It's just a way of saving money."
Hodge also proposed the formation of a "mayor's committee," representing both sides of the public debate on the failed utility tax, to devise a strategy for attacking future budget problems.
Almost 55% of the voters voted against the tax measure Nov. 3.
Dissident Councilman Robert Wagner, a leader of the opposition to the tax measure, favored balancing the budget with 2 1/2% cuts in each department, requiring each department head to find ways to trim operating expenses.
"There's no reason a small municipality can't follow the lead of the state and federal governments," said Wagner, who cast the lone negative vote on the cuts approved by the council.
Wagner was supported by members of the South Pasadena Taxpayers Assn., who described the council's approach as being "simplistic."
"It's easy to take three large budget items--whack, whack, whack--and you're done," said Thomas Biesek, a leader of the group. "But a 2% to 3% cut would show the people of South Pasadena that the council acknowledges that there's a shortfall of dollars and they're going to try even harder to make it go."
Biesek's group proposed trimming what its leaders referred to as "fat," including $18,400 from the Police Department, $6,625 from the Fire Department, $75,000 from the tree pruning program and $200 from the yearly salary of City Atty. Charles Vose. They also proposed cutting the council members' $300-a-month salaries in half.
But Bernardi said after the council meeting that the group's proposal had arrived too late to be seriously considered. "I got this tonight," he said, holding a copy of the proposal. "It's unfair for them to criticize the City Council for not listening to them. We can't wait. We have to move."
Bernardi added that the city could not attack the deficit by eliminating "line items," or individual entries in the budget, as the group had proposed, because such entries are often shorthand for a category of expenses.
" 'Vehicle maintenance' covers many, many items," he said. "You're not going to list in the budget three bolts, three screws, two oil filters. You lump them all into a general item."
The immediate effects of the service cutbacks, Bernardi said, will be a "spacing out" of street sweeping and median maintenance and a drastic reduction in tree pruning.
He said he does not expect homeowners to have to pay for pruning trees on or near their property except in "situations where a tree is dangerous or absolutely needs to be trimmed."
It is the neighborhood pruning sweeps that will be eliminated, Bernardi said. "The mass tree trimming, with four, five or six blocks at a time--we don't expect to do that."
Bernardi added that even the "big-bucks" cuts would not entirely cover the shortfall. "We hope to cover it with the hiring freeze and by watching the expenditure side very, very closely."