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Balancing Act : Incoming City Council Will Have to Make All the Budget Decisions

July 18, 1993|ANDREW LePAGE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COVINA — When all five newcomers to the Covina City Council sit down together for the first time in October, they'll have a lot to figure out in a very short time.

The first order of business will be whether to renew the city's controversial utility tax, which expires at the end of that month.

Outgoing Mayor Henry Morgan and councilmen John King and Richard Gratton say they have no intention of renewing the tax. They also said they will let the new council make all the decisions about how to balance the budget.

Revenues from the utility tax will trickle in through December, but then the city will face a $1.2-million deficit by the end of the fiscal year in June, said Stan McCartney, the city's finance director.

The entire five-member council was recalled by an overwhelming margin on Tuesday, and the new council will be selected in an election in October. Recall proponents said the utility tax, which averages $12.60 per household, would not have been necessary if the council had managed city finances better.

"If the new council decides not to continue the tax, then everyone will take a hit and they'll have to decide which programs to close down," King said, adding that talk among recall supporters about cutting salaries and perks ignores the fact that most city employees' pay is spelled out in union contracts.

Since 1991, the current council has dipped into reserves, reduced library and City Hall hours and cut 33 employees to balance the budget.

"The utility tax is general fund money, and that is the primary source of funding for police, fire and paramedics," City Manager John R. Thomson said. "And you don't want to reduce police in light of the growing gang problem, so it will be a real challenge to the council."

The new council will be sworn in Oct. 12, in time for contract talks with two of the city's four unions.

The contract with the American Federal, State and Municipal Employees, which represents 58 general employees, expires at the end of the year. The United Professional Firefighters, representing 36 employees, will be negotiating a 1994 contract this fall. Contracts for the two other unions, representing police officers and police management, will be negotiated next year.

Council members can cut the salaries of about 50 non-union workers, including upper management, at any time. Those workers have already agreed to an indefinite salary freeze.

Recall proponents, including several who may run for a council seat, say there is fat to cut. They complain that city employee salaries--especially in the Fire Department and city administration--have increased in recent years.

For instance, says former councilman Tom O'Leary, an attorney: "People are irate that a city of this size has a city manager making (about $105,000) a year."

O'Leary is one of several recall proponents who say they are considering running for a council seat.

John Wilcox, a recall activist and Covina business owner, said he will run. He said the city can save money on salaries and that he would do everything possible to avoid using a tax to balance the budget.

William Mason, a financial planner and free-lance writer who led one of two recall groups in town, said he is thinking about running. So is former Councilman Bob Low.

Filing for the five vacancies will open the morning of July 21 and close at 5 p.m. July 29. The three candidates receiving the most will serve until April, 1996. The other two terms will expire next April.

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