Even with an estimated $16 million from the city’s new sales tax increase, Chula Vista will struggle to hire more police officers as it faces looming deficits in the coming years.
The city’s long-term plan calls for hiring five police officers per year to keep up with growth, independent of Measure A, the sale tax increase the city passed to fund more public safety staffing. The measure was meant to boost existing hiring.
But during Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, during which the council approved the fiscal year 2019 budget, City Manager Gary Halbert told the council that Chula Vista may not be able to afford its five-officers-a-year plan going forward.
“We’re looking at deficits growing significantly over the next handful of years; the passage of Measure A doesn’t change that fact,” Halbert said.
The 2020 budget faces a projected deficit of $10 million. Finance Director David Bilby said he isn’t sure if money for the five officers will be available.
“In order to sustain the budget long-term, I don’t know how we would be able to continue to add five (officers) and all the Measure A officers, and balance that general fund budget,” he said.
Councilwoman Pat Aguilar called the situation “worrisome,” particularly because Measure A was meant to supplement existing public safety hiring, not replace it.
“It was always my understanding that the long-term plan called for five per year and then, assuming Measure A passes, Measure A would be above and beyond that,” she told Bilby. “But that’s not what you’re saying.”
None of the other council members or Mayor Mary Casillas Salas asked the director of finance or city manager more questions about the city’s long-term plans to hire more police officers during Tuesday’s meeting.
To be clear, should Measure A pass, the tax revenues are still expected to be used to hire 43 police personnel and the 36 firefighters. However, they city’s long-term plan of hiring five officers a year to keep up with population growth does not seem feasible given the growing deficit.
On Wednesday, Mayor Salas said she was concerned about the city’s short-term ability to hire the five additional officers a year but was confident the city will generate enough revenue to fund those positions in the future by building more hotels and developing the bayfront.
The San Diego County Registrar’s Office is still counting provisional ballots, so the election’s results aren’t official yet. Currently, Measure A has 51.96 percent of the vote.
No on A, the Measure A opposition group, argued during the campaign that the tax increase didn’t address structural revenue problems and that it would be more effective to pursue pension reform.
Russ Hall, chairman of No on A, said the fact that the city may not be able to hire additional officers going forward validates their concerns.
“The city sold this thing as solving all their problems,” he said. “But there was nothing in this campaign about cost containment as it relates to public safety.”
The council approved the fiscal year 2019 budget by a unanimous vote.
The budget includes a $174.7 million general fund, an $8.1 million increase from last year. The biggest departmental expenditures are $56.6 million for the Police Department and $30.8 million for the Fire Department.
The budget provides funds for the Bayfront hotel and convention center project, the South Bay university project, and hiring five new police officers.
To balance the budget, city departments are being asked to save $1.4 million in salary costs through reducing overtime, leaving a position vacant, or hiring a new employee that has a lower cost of pay and benefits than an existing employee.
Additionally, the city plans to increase tax revenues by an increase in hotel taxes and raising fees at the recreation and developmental services departments.
To save more money, Chula Vista used an Obama-era program called Clean Renewable Energy Bonds that allowed Chula Vista to issue nearly $13 million in bonds to finance the installation of solar panels. The program allows the city to save between $300,000 and $1 million a year for 30 years while offsetting utility cost increases.
City staff are already working on overcoming 2020’s $10 million projected deficit.
“Staff will be starting work right away on the 2020 forecast and how we’re going to be attempting to balance that structurally so that we can see a long-term financial plan that’s more balanced in those future years,” Bilby told the council.
“Obviously a $10 million starting-year deficit is a difficult hill to climb, but we’re going to do everything in our power to bring back recommendations to you in order to continue to meet requested service levels but also requiring a balance budget.”