City Council votes to convert full-time position to volunteer chief after federal grant expires
By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
FARMERSVILLE – Five years after hiring its first-ever fire chief, the City of Farmersville is eliminating the position.
At its June 24 meeting, the Farmersville City Council approved the City’s 2019-20 fiscal year budget cutting the fire chief position. The chief and a lieutenant positions were created and sustained through the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) Grant through FEMA. The City was awarded two, three-year grants beginning in 2014 when it hired former Tulare County Division Chief John Crivello to be the first chief since the city incorporated in 1960. The grant, which expired last month, left a $250,000 hole to fill in the fire department’s 2019-20 budget, which represents about 12% of the city’s general fund.
The elimination of the chief position will save the fire department $160,000 in salary and benefits despite pleas from a dozen volunteer and staff firefighters to keep Crivello at its budget hearing on June 10. City manager Jennifer Gomez said Crivello’s last official day as chief was June 25.
“We were unable to retain all of the positions from the grant and decided we would move forward with a volunteer chief,” Gomez said.
City manager Jennifer Gomez said the approved budget did manage to save at least one of the fire department’s full-time positions that was funded through the grant, leaving the department with one captain and two lieutenants. The budget also extended the city’s code enforcement from a part-time to full-time position which also falls under the fire department. Those positions were retained and extended thanks to revenues from Measure P, a half percent sales tax measure approved by voters in 2017.
Gomez said Capt. Jim Thomas resigned last week and he will be replaced by Lt. Brandon Saefong who will be promoted to captain next week. After two years on medical leave, Lt. Brian Kyle’s position was vacated and will be filled by Lt. Brannon Parish. That leaves one lieutenant position unfilled.
Gomez said Farmersville did look into contracting for fire personnel with Tulare County, similar to what Exeter does, but said it would have cost them more money than operating their own department. “The preliminary numbers said there wouldn’t be any cost savings,” Gomez said.
Gomez said the department will instead hire a volunteer chief who will report to Police Chief Mario Krstic and assist him in preparing the department’s annual budget, capital improvement plans, and maintaining mutual aid agreements with other fire agencies. The volunteer chief will be required to develop and implement training programs, maintain adequate records of maintenance and training, and be on call to respond to fires. The position will be paid a stipend. The announcement for the position was posted on the city’s website on June 28 and Gomez said she hopes to have a volunteer chief by the end of the month. Applicants are asked to submit a letter of interest and a resume to Jennifer Gomez, City Manager, 909 W. Visalia Road, Farmersville, CA 93223 by Friday, July 12.
Councilmember Paul Boyer suggested taking money from capital improvements projects to continue funding the fire chief position. For example, the fire department is planning on purchasing a new ladder truck for $660,000 and radio pagers for $7,500. Boyer said city staff advised against borrowing money from needed improvements to maintain a position that was created through a grant.
“They made a good argument for staying within the confines of the budget,” Boyer said.
Ultimately, the council voted 4-0 to approve the budget with Councilmember Ruben Macareno abstaining.
Three quarters of the city’s $30 million budget is for capital improvements. Just under $13 million is scheduled for the wastewater treatment plant (WTP). Construction on the facility began last year and is estimated to cost $27 million before it opens sometime in 2020. The plant was financed through a combination of a grant through the State Revolving Fund (SRF), a loan through a Certificate of Participation with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and a balance in the Sewer Utility Fund. The total principle to be repaid is estimated at $16 million of which $11 million will be repaid to the SRF through the fall of 2050 and the remaining $5 million to USDA through the spring of 2058.
In addition to the WTP, the city will be working on three, million-dollar projects this year. Public Works Department has over $8 million in projects this coming year that either have funding or funding is pending a grant’s approval. This includes $7 million for the Sports Park and a $1 million renovation of Jennings Park. There is also $2.5 million slated to widen Farmersville Boulevard from Walnut Avenue to the Highway 198 interchange and $1.1 million to repair damage and reconstruct portions of Walnut Avenue west of Farmersville Boulevard.
“The lion’s share of the City’s capital program is in the areas of facility improvement and rehabilitation; therefore, most projects actually serve to reduce future maintenance costs and impact to future year budgets,” Huntley stated.
Revenues Up and Down
Part of the problem is that costs are outpacing sales tax revenue. Sales tax represents over one-third of the city’s General Fund, followed by vehicle license fees, which accounts for a quarter of the fund. Since 2014, revenues have increased by 25%, but expenditures have increased by 33%. In 2018-19, revenues increased by $7.7 million but expenditures increased by almost $10 million.
Sales tax is expected to be down in 2019-20 for the first time since 2015-16. Farmersville should expect another $200,000 from the Gas Tax approved in 2017.
“Growing the tax base, as well as diversifying tax revenue streams, will be critical to achieving legitimate growth over the long run and to therefore liberate the City from the crashing waves of economic ups and downs,” Huntley wrote in his presentation to the council in May.
In total, salaries and benefits have increased dramatically over the last several years. Insurance premiums and other health costs alone have increased over 36% since 2012-13. Efforts to curb this growth started last year with the establishment of premium caps for employees hired after Jan. 1, 2018.
The only new position created in the budget is a maintenance worker for Public Works. Gomez said the new position brings the department to seven employees, the most in the last decade. She said Public Works needs the additional staffing with the addition of the sports park and all of the new landscaping in medians along Farmersville Boulevard, the Highway 198 interchange’s dual roundabouts, and the future median planned for North Farmersville Boulevard and the possibility of a roundabout at Walnut Avenue and Freedom Drive.
Cannabis is only projected to bring the city about $150,000 next year. When the revenues do materialize, there are already expectations in place on how to spend those funds. Huntley cautioned the council to use restraint and financial discipline and view cannabis revenue as one-time funds for several years. He also noted there is no clear answer on when the State will be on top of the licensing and regulation of these businesses.
“The reasons this restraint is needed is because there is no clear direction on the legality from the Federal level which could place any other Federal Funding at risk,” Huntley wrote. “Additionally, the largest potential market shapers aren’t even allowed to participate in the industry yet; namely, tobacco companies and other giants with billions of investable dollars.”
The city is making progress on balancing its Water Utility fund. In previous years, the city completed its conversion to metered water and the first of five water rate increases took effect on Jan. 1, 2018. The fund is projected to break even by the end of FY 2020-21 but at the cost of deferring maintenance on aging infrastructure. The city is also falling behind on its Lighting and Landscape Maintenance Districts, which at the current pace will be insolvent in two years. The City will likely have to conduct a Proposition 218 hearing to increase its refuse rates in the next year or risk operating at a deficit by the end of this fiscal year. Farmersville will also attempt to pass a tax for a business that doesn’t currently exist in town. The city is planning to place a Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) or hotel tax, on the March 2020 ballot.
“Fiscal Year 2019-20 will be a pivotal year for the City of Farmersville, and how the City weathers the internal and external challenges will determine the course of City progress for the next decade,” Huntley concluded in his report to the council.