Visalia preps budget for city safety, growth

Visalia City Council meeting on May 20, 2024.(Rigo Moran)

Visalia prepares to finalize biennial budget for fiscal year ‘24-25 and ‘25-26 with a focus on safety, development in the city

VISALIA – As Visalia prepares for the final review and potential adoption of its biennial budget for fiscal years 2024-25 and 2025-26, key priorities such as public safety, economic development and homelessness reduction have taken the forefront of the discussion.

Visalia City Council heard the budget presentation at its meeting on Monday, June 3. The next step is for council to hear the final rendition of the budget at its next meeting on June 17, conduct a public hearing on the budget and then potentially adopt it in preparation for fiscal years 2024-25 and 2025-26. 

Visalia Mayor Brian Poochigian noted that this year’s budget is focused on moving the city forward with a focus on public safety.

“Public safety is obviously the largest chunk, but that implies safety for our residents here in the city,” Poochigian said in an interview with The Sun-Gazette. “We also have a lot of our capital improvement projects throughout the city so the residents can enjoy the things we are doing here.”

Visalia adopts its biennial budget every two years, and for this cycle, accounts for fiscal years 2024-25 and 2025-26. The budget is a policy document, financial plan, operations guide and communication device all in one, and lays out a strategic resource allocation plan that lines up with community goals, preferences and needs.

For this two-year round, the budget focuses on preserving and enhancing public safety through the addition of two new police officer positions, a digital forensic investigator and a new community service officer over the two-year fiscal cycle. 

As Visalia continues to grow, these added resources increasingly become important, but they are not the only focus of the upcoming budget. Economic development and a renewed effort to provide opportunities to reduce homelessness in Visalia are priorities the budget seeks to address.

A major key to development within the city is the application of funds through Measure N, which added a half-cent sales tax to augment police, fire and road safety measures. Measure N was voter-approved in 2017. The current budget plan will add one police officer in 2025 along with a digital evidence technician, then another police officer and community service officer in the 2025-2026 budget.

“It is always a struggle to fill these positions but we are trying to build recruitment plans and figure out how we can recruit police officers,” Poochigian said. “We are really having a struggle right now trying to hire police officers, IT and engineers. It takes a certain type of qualification, not anyone can come in and do that kind of work.”

The current budget proposal assumes that all city vacancies will be filled. Currently, there are 16 vacancies the city seeks to fill. A major recent controversy has erupted regarding a rebranding of the city logo, which was initially undertaken as a way to improve recruitment of non-Visalians to fill vacant positions. Poochigian described it as a constantly open recruitment process.

Over the last several years, the fear of a recession has led to specific planning. Recently, the council voted to expand the reserve fund from 25% of the operating costs to 30%. The reserve currently sits at $22.9 million while appropriations are near $95 million. The costs are expected to swell to $98 million in 2025-26 with the expectation that all vacancies will be filled.

“During the great recession, we got down to like two weeks of operating expenses in the bank and that is a risky place you don’t want to be,” Poochigian said. “I think what you are seeing now is with sales tax coming down, it is a realignment to where it should be.”

City staff showed that during the pandemic, sales taxes historically spiked by 28% buoyed by federal and state stimulus money, but now those funds are long gone and the average consumer is returning to regular spending levels. The current budget proposal indicates that sales tax revenue will level off in the coming years and be more in line with pre-pandemic levels.

“Sales tax and property tax are our two major generators for revenue streams,” Poochigian said. He added that city staff working on the budget do a great job of targeting what the numbers will be year over year during the budgeting process.

On June 3, the city council moved forward a rule that will allow a 10% tax on marijuana delivery sales in Visalia if voters approve on the November ballot. There are no current plans to allow store-front retail sales, but the proposition will ensure that should state law change, Visalia will be able to dictate where those revenues are spent.

The measure will be before voters in November and early polling suggests more than 60% support the tax in all five districts. The funds would be used to support law enforcement and capital projects within the city, but does not authorize the establishment of retail or warehouse properties within city limits. It will apply to any delivery made from the surrounding communities.

“If you look at other surrounding communities, it (marijuana sales) is already next to Visalia. You have deliveries coming in, it is already here,” Poochigian said. “I don’t think the tax revenues will be that great of a money maker. Initially, the tax presentation was around a million, but in reality they are thinking it’s only going to come in around $500,000.”

Among the significant projects the city is looking toward are contributions toward the Navigation Center, which will be a lynchpin between area hospitals and rehabilitation services that offer opportunities to provide in-house care to help the unhoused transition out of life on the streets. The Navigation Center will provide around 100 beds for people transitioning from hospitals to housing opportunities rather than turning people onto the streets.

Another significant capital project is the new Civic Center that will eventually centralize numerous city services and provide an updated, state-of-the-art way for the city council to interact with the public, an issue that was highlighted recently over changes to the city logo. One suggestion that Poochigian made during Monday’s meeting is that each of the unique logos used by the city should be highlighted at the new Civic Center as a way to shed light on how the city has grown and how individuals have contributed to the growth all residents enjoy today.

The final rendition of the budget will be heard on June 17 and will be an opportunity for council members to make a last stand.

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