About 20 residents braved last night's winter chill and gathered at the to participate in a community budget meeting hosted by the city of Half Moon Bay.
The meeting was held with the intent of generating ideas from residents on strategies the city can adopt to address a $500,000 deficit that city officials have estimated could surpass $1 million if no action is taken in the next fiscal year to cut costs or raise revenues.
"I'm a little concerned about the future of the city," said Hazel Joanes, an 8-year Half Moon Bay resident who attended last night's meeting. "I have a little son so I'm concerned that the niceties of Half Moon Bay are not going to be there anymore," she said.
"I'm curious about the city's intent on how to manage their budget in a sensible manner," she said.
"This council, though -- they'll do the right thing," she added.
Greeted with a modest spread of cheese, fruit, sweets, and beverages, attendees sat theater-style and listened to brief welcomes from Mayor Naomi Patridge and City Manager Laura Snideman.
Next, the audience was given an overview of city's finances by Jan Cooke, Half Moon Bay's Finance Director, who provided a context of factors contributing to the city's current budget shortfall, which included "significant financial impacts" in the last few years such as the Beachwood lawsuit, continued increased costs to provide city services, and an economic downturn that has been slow to recover.
Cooke also highlighted that Half Moon Bay was considered a low property tax city as it receives seven cents for every dollar in paid taxes, compared to 18 cents for most other cities.
One resident asked if there was a figure the city needed to raise to break even, but that number was not available at last night's meeting. "There's no number I can show you tonight," said Cooke, adding that she would work on pulling together that information.
Attendees had the chance to speak one-on-one and get more information from staff representing each of the city departments, including the City Manager's Office, the Recreation Department, the Police Department, Building and Code Enforcement, and Planning.
Next, residents and some city staff divided into three small groups each facilitated by City of San Mateo employees who volunteered their time to help defray costs. Groups were asked to discuss strategies the city should look at to balance the budget, as well as alternative revenue strategies it should consider.
Ideas on how to cut costs ranged from big-picture ideas such as banding Half Moon Bay together with surrounding unincorporated Coastside communities and creating a Joint Powers Agreement; to following the example of other municipalities such as Elk Grove, which made the decision to have a non-union police department that would save money by not paying out retirement benefits; to sharing and consolidating staff (such as the city attorney) and departments (such as what is being explored with the Half Moon Bay Police Department) with other cities and authorities; to utilizing volunteers such as reserve police officers, college students and retirees to provide services.
Interim Police Chief Lee Violett said that he thought the use of reserve officers in the Half Moon Police Department was a good idea, and noted that the training and use of these officers has been an trend over the last five years as police departments have not been hiring. Currently, Violett said, there are currently three reserve officers with the Half Moon Bay Police Department.
Another group of suggestions centered around the city getting a greater handle on the way it is currently spending or committing its funds through analyzing its contracts with external service providers, renegotiating its short-term contracts on an annual basis, and reviewing its retirement programs.
While a few ideas to raise revenue -- such as selling off city property, installing parking meters, and going after unlicensed businesses -- have already been circulated, others were relatively new, such as attracting green technology companies; utilizing the city's unused property for more tourist dollars and developing paintball or grand prix facilities; introducing a per pet licensing fee; and seeking other cities to contract with Half Moon Bay for fire and police services, rather than the other way around.
In a shift from their usual positions at the front of the room during council meetings, Mayor Patridge, Vice Mayor Allan Alifano, and Councilmembers Marina Fraser, John Muller, and Rick Kowalczyk did make any formal presentations during the meeting. Instead, each listened to questions from residents, mingled with attendees, and hovered on the fringes of each of the three small groups to listen to what was being discussed.
"I didn't hear anyone holding back," said Kowalczyk of what he heard during the brainstorming session. "It's very obvious that there are not many sacred cows...these solutions might be challenging to accept, but it will take time," he said.
"I thought the meeting tonight was a good effort by the city to explore new ideas from the Half Moon Bay community," said Michael Montgelas, who has lived in Half Moon Bay for six years.
"The best ideas I heard tonight were engaging citizens to volunteer in roles to help save city labor costs and better use of city real estate," Montgelas said.
City staff say that they will combine the suggestions they received on Thursday night to ones provided by the City Council and city staff for consideration at a council meeting in March.
In April, the city expects to have in for their , along with their , and will incorporate that information into their 2011-2012 budget document. The city is aiming to have the budget proposal to the City Council by June 7, and adopt a final budget by June 21.