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Huntington Officials Whetting Budget Ax

City Hall: Cuts totaling $9 million have been made to police, fire and libraries, and a new round of trims looms.

November 04, 2001|STANLEY ALLISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Faced with its worst financial outlook in nearly a decade, Huntington Beach has begun slashing spending on everything from new library books to police and fire programs, with officials warning that more severe cuts are probably on the way.

While cities across the state are cutting back because of the slowing economy, Huntington Beach's financial woes are heightened by two rulings that could reduce tax revenue by nearly $11.7 million. The city expects to take an additional $7-million hit if the state makes good on its plan to cut the amount of vehicle license-fee revenue that municipalities receive.

The gloomy outlook, officials said, leaves the city with a stark choice: Either find new sources of income, including new taxes, or consider further cuts in seemingly sacred programs--including police and fire.

So far, the city has trimmed its $140-million general fund budget by 6.4%--or $9 million. This included cuts to the police department's crime statistics analysis unit, Regional Narcotics Task Force and the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program.

In the Fire Department, the city eliminated three open firefighter positions and a fire prevention specialist position. The library's acquisition of books, magazines and videos was reduced by $116,000. Part-time positions were eliminated in various departments and other services, such as equipment for the city's cable TV channel, were either reduced or killed.

The City Council has talked about closing some library branches, charging residents for library cards and putting parking meters in library lots. But after a public outcry, in the form of letters, e-mails and phone calls, the city has dropped those plans for now.

But if city finances continue to worsen, "I can only assume they will be brought up again," said Ron Hayden, director of library services.

One of the unknown factors as the city looks to keep its budget balanced is the heightened security alerts that have been issued since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Each alert forces the city's emergency services departments to spend more money in overtime pay, though officials did not provide an exact number. Officials worry about costs escalating if the alerts continue for months or even years.

"Whenever the FBI orders a high alert, it's our police officers and firefighters who have to be on high alert, and there's more cost to do that," city administrator Ray Silver said.

City officials are now trying to make an $8-million cut in the budget. That would represent about 6% of the city's general-fund budget. They are tight-lipped, however, about exactly what is under consideration.

The cutbacks concern resident Huong Nguyen, 38, who checks out 15-20 books a week from the Banning branch library for her children. She said there has been talk of closing the small branch before--a prospect she dreads.

"That [would] mean we would have to go way across town," she said, adding that she would be willing to pay more for parking or other library services to keep the branch open.

The cause of the city's fiscal problems can be traced to this spring, when a court ruled that a property tax was illegal. The levy, collected in addition to the state's 1% property tax, was designed to help pay for the city's employee retirement fund.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. successfully argued in court that the city levy violated Proposition 13, the 1978 statewide ballot measure that strictly limited how much property taxes cities could collect.

The city is appealing the ruling but has nonetheless stopped collecting the tax.

Huntington Beach also faces the loss of another $1.7 million because of a new ruling by the state Board of Equalization about how property taxes from power plants are distributed.

At issue is the AES power plant in the city's southeast district. The city is creating a redevelopment zone that includes that plant. Under old state rules, the move would entitle the city to $1.7 million in tax revenue. But a recent change in policy by the Board of Equalization means the city will only receive about $13,000.

City Treasurer Shari Freidenrich has been lobbying lawmakers in Sacramento to reverse the board's ruling. But given the state's economic condition, chances are slim that she will prevail.

"We're going to try to fight to keep it, but we have to plan for the worst," Silver said.

Some of the reductions made so far have been painful. Some students urged the city not to cut the DARE program, which they considered a valuable resource for students to learn about the dangers of drugs.

But officials determined that DARE was nonessential.

"It's going to be very difficult to find enough savings without a review of what we do in public safety," Silver added. "We may have to reduce service levels or eliminate some programs."

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