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Economy to dominate council term?
Ken Lane and Chris Vierra embarked on another four-year term on the Ceres City Council Monday evening, with both expecting the ship of state to hit even choppier waters due to the recession.

A short swearing-in ceremony was held for the victors of the Nov. 3 election. Vierra amassed 1,898 votes and Lane picked up 1,521 to oust challenger Mike Kline; he came in third place with 1,221 votes.

Vierra said the economy and shrinking revenues will likely dominate the new term.

"It's going to be some very very challenging times with the state takes that we are projecting," said Vierra.

The state projects a $21 billion deficit for the 2010-11 budget year. It's a staggering shortfall that has cities and counties bracing for additional revenue grabs by the state.

"The League of California Cities has informed us that the state may have found new ways to take more of our money and we're concerned about that," note Vierra.

Lane said the top council priority will be tending to budget and finances.

He said the city will need to cut "anywhere between $1.7 to $2 million. We have no numbers to base anything on. We probably won't have the numbers until mid- to late-January."

City Manager Brad Kilger said the cities may be especially vulnerable to the loss of transportation funds and police subventions. If Ceres loses its share of highway users tax revenue, said Kilger, it would "significantly impact" the daily street operations program.

Also impacting the city's budget picture is its obligation to the Stanislaus County Employee's Retirement Association (StanCERA) system. Most cities are a member of the PERS retirement system but Ceres belongs to StanCERA. The city could be forced to contribute $1.2 million for the agency which took a hit from recent investment losses. City officials are hoping that StanCERA's losses can be feathered out over a five-year period so that Ceres doesn't have to come up with the entire amount in one year.

Additional losses will mean the council goes back to budget slashing and potentially more layoff. Where will the cuts be made? "That's a good question," answered Vierra. "As I've said all along I don't want to cut staff but we will have to be creative. All the low-hanging fruit was easy to tackle."

While the council already slashed jobs and other expenses earlier this year, there would be more cutting to take place. Lane said he feels that the police and fire bargaining units will have to make concessions.

Economic development

While the council has a priority also of developing Ceres economically, the economy has wreaked havoc with those efforts. Business capital remains tight because of the financial crisis. Rite Aid, having received city approval to build a new store at Mitchell and Fowler roads, faces difficulties in coming up with financing.

"There's potential that Rite Aid may be moving forward," said Vierra. "They got the first but they need a second to pony up about a million and a half dollars."

If the new store is approved, Save Mart plans to fill the space now occupied by Rite Aid in the Save Mart Shopping Center, he said.

Apparently the bad economy has not halted plans to bring forth the Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center before city fathers, probably during the first quarter of 2010. The project, pegged for the northwest corner of Mitchell and Service roads, is proposed to contain anchor tenant Walmart Supercenter. Both the Planning Commission and City Council will be asked to weigh in on an Environmental Impact Report as well a site plan.

Vierra and Lane both continue to say that they don't know how they will decide on the center. The city must consider impacts to existing business as well as traffic, noise and pollution considerations. Ordinarily the Planning Commission would handle the approval or rejection of a site plan. But the council must weigh in to cerify the EIR and approve a development agreement.

The city also would be interested in what happens to the existing Walmart store once it is closed.

It was disclosed last week that the proponents of the project, Regency Centers, Inc., of Florida, sold the proposed site to the Walmart Corporation. The move has city officials scratching their heads with speculation, especially given that the center hasn't been approved for development.

"I'm not against competition but I haven't even seen the reports," said Lane. "It's going to be sucky if the environmental impacts can't be mitigated and ... this thing does not work and Walmart sits on a valuable piece of property and then what happens to that corner? I don't understand the philosophy of what's behind this."

The council is encouraged that proponents of the West Ceres Specific Plan are moving forward. The West Ceres Specific plan - a master planned development on 960 acres on the west side of Ceres - is proposed to include industrial, commercial and residential development. The plan includes the annexation of the G3 plant which once was the Proctor and Gamble plant, and the Stanislaus County government complex.

Lane said another top priority of the council will be moving forward with capital improvements, including updates to the city water and sewer system. The city is in the process of issuing bonds for improvements in both infrastructures. Because of legislation at the state level, the city will also be retrofitting homes in Ceres with water meters. The first homes to be equipped with meters are homes built in 1992 and later.

In other areas, Vierra said he wants the city to continue doing "as much in downtown as we can."

He said he will also be glad to see the completion of the Whitmore interchange, scheduled to be completed in 2011.

At Monday's swearing-in ceremony state Assemblyman Bill Berryhill presented congratulatory sentiments to the two victors. He held certificates in his right hand, noting that he just had surgery on his left shoulder. He equipped that it meant he's a "real right-winger."

New vice mayor on Dec. 14

On Dec. 14 the council will be reassigning vice mayor and committee roles. Lane is expected to become Ceres' vice mayor since the council generally rotates the position among councilmembers every two years. Vierra has served as vice mayor the past two years.

The post will not have a lot of bearing who will become mayor at the end of 2010 should Mayor Anthony Cannella is elected to the California State Senate next November, said Vierra.

If Cannella wins the Senate race and resigns with a year left in his four-year term, the council will appoint a successor that may or may not be the vice mayor. The vacancy will be filled when at least three of the four remaining councilmen agree on a successor.

"I definitely have interest in that," said Vierra of the mayor's office.

He rejects the notion that Cannella's seat be filled by a special election, saying the spending of approximately $45,000 for a special election to fill one year of an unexpired term is "not the wisest use of taxpayers' money."

What if there is an internal battle over the appointment of a successor? Vierra answered this way: "If we can't come to some consensus, then I'll remove my name from consideration and would run a year later. I wouldn't allow it to fracture the council."

However, Lane said he has no interests in being mayor.

"He would be more than welcome to it," said Lane of Vierra. "Chris has been here longer than anyone. If Chris wants to be mayor I have no problems or issues with it."