Tulare without publicly viewable proposed budget

Two weeks out from adopting final fiscal year 2021/2022 budget, Tulare does not have a draft budget readily available for the public to provide input, despite three budget sessions and reviewed by council five times in open session

TULARE – It’s budget season, and as the fiscal year comes to an end, cities and governing bodies have been preparing to finalize their fiscal year 2021/2022 budgets. Every major city in Tulare County has made their proposed budgets readily available to the public except for Tulare, who’s two weeks out from passing a finalized budget at their June 15 council meeting.

For context at the state level, the governor is required by the state constitution to submit a budget proposal by Jan. 10. By May 14 the “May revise” is presented, which is when Governor Gavin Newsom announced the shocking $75.7 billion surplus, with most of those funds intended to be awarded to taxpayers. State legislators must pass a budget by June 15, identical to cities and towns in California.

The Tulare city council has had five chances to review the fiscal year 2021/2022 budget process in open session, on top of three budget study sessions, the latest and final of which occurred at the start of the May 18 council meeting. For residents and ratepayers who want to participate in the process, Council member Jose Sigala said the council works off of “flex sheets,” which are buried in the staff reports of the last council meeting.

“[Flex sheets] are financial tools that are printed out department by department that show all revenue and expenditure for that department,” Sigala said.

At the final budget session May 18 reviewing the proposed budget for fiscal year 2021/2022, finance director and treasurer Darlene Thompson—who told The Sun-Gazette documentation for the proposed budget does not exist—said the city’s budget deficit sits at $871,000, down from around $1.3 million thanks to a repayment on a redevelopment loan.

Despite the nearly million-dollar deficit, the council reviewed a slew of budget suggestions from council member Sigala, totaling over $600,000 in additional spending.

On council member Sigala’s request to provide $2,500 to each council district—$12,500 total—for community improvement, Mayor Dennis Mederos was hesitant.

“We’re spending money that we don’t have,” Mederos said, “and this is the first year we’re doing that for something that we don’t have.”

Council member Sigala spoke on the “big ticket item” he proposed, subsidizing the Bringing Everyone’s Strengths Together (BEST) after school program for a year with $90,000—up from $10,000—to give working parents hit hard by COVID-19 support by having a safe place for their children to be after school.

“As we are looking to have parents go back to work, as they are looking for jobs, as they are dealing with childcare,” Sigala said, “I think it’s important that the city provides some support by allowing kids between those critical hours between 3 and 6 to have a safe place to meet, to do their homework, to wait for their parents to pick them up.”

Despite the pitch for parents in need, the council chose to only move forward with establishing a new line item in the amount of $2,500 per council district for a total of $12,500 for Community Improvement and increasing the city contribution to the Tulare Chamber of Commerce from $12,500 to $25,000.

“We as a council take this part of our job very seriously,” Sigala said, “in terms of making sure that our budget is as balanced as possible and that we make our priority not to impact services.”

The council’s fiscally conservative budgeting decisions are without the elephant in the room: the almost $18 million headed to Tulare via the American Rescue Plan (ARP)—half is due any day now, with the second half due in 2022. Though there are guidelines from the feds on how that money can be spent, they have yet to be set in stone, and Tulare is certainly not alone in leaving the COVID relief money out of budget planning. Council member Sigala said the ARP funds were a part of his rationale in requesting increased spending.

“My rationale was let’s put out some spending, and that American Rescue Plan is supposed to help us with that deficit,” Sigala said. “The council should be meeting in hopefully September to figure out, ‘now we’ve got this money, what can we do?’”

Mayor Mederos shared his thoughts on the ARP funds at the May 17 council meeting.

“We have an opportunity here to be good shepherds of $18 million dollars,” Mederos said. “My goal, quite frankly, is to do the type of thing that was done by the public works program in 1936 that gave us the community auditorium, that gave us city hall, that gave us the civic affairs building, and do the types of things that will have a long term effect that will benefit everybody in this society.”

Council member Sigala said he plans to propose a formula similar to Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding from the federal government, where certain percentages are allotted to social services, capital projects and administration.

“The American Rescue Plan dollars are going to be once in a lifetime money,” said Sigala. “I understand the mayor wanting to put together projects like the old public works projects in the 30’s, and leaving them as a legacy. But I also feel that helping people—children, families and small businesses—is also a legacy for us to do that with this kind of money.”

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