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Ceres adopts budget for new year
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The new city budget, passed Monday night by the Ceres City Council, was trimmed of $1.8 million from what department heads had hoped to spend in the new fiscal year starting Sunday.

The 2012-13 budget contains $15.18 million in the general fund, of which the lion's share is spent on public safety operations in Ceres.

Department heads submitted proposed expenditures of $16.98 million. The difference was made up by spending reductions, a 10 percent reduction in pay for all six labor groups, putting off replacement of old and worn out equipment, keeping one unfilled police officer position frozen and using $606,441 of Measure H funds earmarked for public safety.

The budget is also balanced through use of $52,267 in general fund reserves.

The city has seen a dramatic drop in property tax revenue over the last few years, said Acting City Manager Art deWerk, and only a slight increase in sales tax revenues.

DeWerk said a total of four city positions are going unfilled, including three Community Service Officers and one code enforcement officer.

The frozen police officer positions saves the city $122,441 for the year.

DeWerk said use of Measure H funds is "to replace lost general fund revenues that previously funded an existing police officer position, three fire engineer positions, along with some overtime."

Much of the budget discussion centered on use of Measure H funds to save three firefighter position that would otherwise be layed off. Ceres voters passed the half-cent sales tax measure in 2007 to add police and fire services. Since enactment, extra sales tax revenues have allowed the city to add 14 new public safety employees, a drug-sniffing canine and new equipment. But with the budget so tight this year, the Ceres reluctantly decided to use Measure H funds to continue with status quo operations.

Despite Measure H falling short in revenues based on 2006 predictions, deWerk said Measure H revenues are more than adequate to cover the costs of positions already filled, leaving an ongoing balance of about $1 million to cover budget shortfalls this year.

City Attorney Michael Lyions said use of the Measure H funds to balance the budget is legal "as long as we maintain the same percentage level of general fund expenditures on public safety as when Measure H was adopted, and we are doing that."

He indicated, however, that the city doesn't want to continue relying on using Measure H in that way.

"It's our intent to get back to the program," said Mayor Chris Vierra on Monday.

DeWerk said the city qualifies for COPS grant funding that may lead to restoration of the police officer position tentatively frozen. He also noted that the fire department has applied for a SAFER grant to allow for the hiring of six firefighters for a two-year period.

"We have a lot of work to do," said deWerk, "not so much with respect to the current budget proposal but our real concerns really lie in fiscal years 2013-14. We've been struggling with an ongoing structural deficit."

He noted with each passing year of postponing replacement of equipment that "we will get closer and closer to reaching a critical mass on this whole city equipment infrastructure issue."

City officials are also fearful what state lawmakers will be doing later this year, especially if California voters reject tax increases proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown to augment education funding.

"We fear - based on what the state has demonstrated - that there would be additional raids on our funding sources. That's because the state hasn't legitimately addressed its own budget deficit. It has seen fit, over and over again in these last five to 10 years to raid local funding sources."

California cities are still reeling from the loss of billions of dollars in redevelopment funds taken by the state earlier this year.