City Council was unable to reach consensus at their October 5 meeting on whether to make budget cuts and how to allocate the $32.7 million in federal aid the City received from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).
Without using the $32.7 million of ARPA funds, the Fullerton general fund budget has a $6 million deficit. Using these funds would eliminate that deficit for the next few years. During the pandemic, the City laid off over 150 non-regular (part-time) employees and seven full-time employees. On top of this, the City has been holding 37 positions unfilled (or vacant) to save money. All of this has caused significant reductions in City services.
Mayor Bruce Whitaker and Mayor Pro Tem Nick Dunlap wanted to make budget cuts and use the ARPA funds primarily for infrastructure. Councilmembers Jesus Silva and Ahmad Zahra were not in favor of cuts and wanted to use the funds to retain or re-hire employees lost during the pandemic and for other government services including infrastructure. Councilmember Fred Jung wanted to make cuts without employee losses.
Zahra made a motion to make no budget cuts and use $24.1 million of ARPA for government services (including budgeted infrastructure projects), use $8.6 million for other programs/projects (including infrastructure), and leave a contingency reserve level of 17%.
“Seventy percent of our services are labor-driven,” Councilmember Zahra said. “So, when we cut labor, we cut services. It’s as simple as that. The library is currently operating at half levels. How can we call ourselves the city of education when we’re cutting our library?”
No one seconded Zahra’s motion.
Mayor Pro Tem Nick Dunlap made a motion to make four percent budget cuts (resulting in between 20-30 additional staffing cuts), use $2.7 million of ARPA for government operations, and use $30 million to invest in roads, streets, and infrastructure, while maintaining a 14% reserve level. Mayor Whitaker seconded this motion.
“When I hear ‘reinvest in the city,’ to me that means reinvesting in our roads, streets, and our infrastructure,” Dunlap said.
Dunlap’s motion failed 3-2 (Zahra, Silva, Jung “no”).
Councilmember Silva made a motion to use $19.4 million of ARPA for government services (including budgeted infrastructure projects), restore $1 million to replenish the City’s vacant employees, use $13.3 million for other programs/projects (including infrastructure), leaving a 13% contingency reserve.
“I don’t want to see any more cuts,” Silva said. “I think we’re already at a low enough workforce. I think we need to increase it.”
Silva’s motion failed 3-2 (Whitaker, Dunlap, and Jung “no”).
Councilmember Jung made a motion for two percent budget cuts without any staffing cuts (without suggesting where those cuts would be made), using $8.7 million of ARPA for government operations (including budgeted infrastructure projects) and $24 million for other programs/projects (including infrastructure), leaving a contingency reserve of 13%. This motion was seconded by Whitaker.
“Your jobs are important to all of us here,” Jung said, referring to the many City workers who spoke during public comment [see below], “but if we can’t get our fiscal house in order, we won’t be able to support those jobs long term.”
Council voted 3-2 (Zahra, Silva, Dunlap “no”) against Jung’s proposal.
There followed a series of attempts at compromise, with Dunlap offering 3.5%, 3% cuts, and 2.5% cuts. These motions all failed.
Jung suggested a 1.5% cut. This motion failed for lack of a second.
Whitaker said he might be willing to support Silva’s motion “if we have some future possibility of future ARPA-like bailouts.”
Zahra pointed out that there is currently a large infrastructure bill in Congress that will likely include funding for Fullerton.
Jung suggested a 1% cut. This motion also failed.
Whitaker made a motion for 2% cuts with the possibility of further staff cuts.
“I’ve been tuning in very closely to a broad array of opinions out there in the community, and it does seem like [the condition of our] streets is maybe the largest complaint by far,” Whitaker said. “I would feel that we would be deficient as a council if we didn’t try to do a little bit of major surgery at this stage rather than just putting a band-aid on it. Short-term pain for long-term gain.”
Whitaker’s motion failed 3-2 (Silva, Zahra, Jung “no”).
Ultimately, Whitaker said, “We are at an impasse…so we’ll just hang the ARPA funds out to dry for the time being, I guess.”
Several members of the public, including members of Fullerton’s public employee unions, addressed Council on this issue.
“Fullerton residents and businesses rely on city services to enhance the quality of life here in Fullerton,” President of the Fullerton Municipal Employees Federation (FMEF) Ed Bargas said. “Unfortunately, our workforce has been cut down to the bone.”
Tim Steed, assistant general manager of the Orange County Employee Association (OCEA), the largest public sector union in Orange County (of which FMEF is a part) said, “I object to cuts when the City is receiving ARPA funds. ARPA is a lifeline being extended to this City. It’s meant to support core public services. Choosing to cut City services while receiving aid meant for city services defies logic, defies the actions of other cities in Orange County, and defies the intent of the legislation.”
Fullerton School Board member Aaruni Thakur said, “Do not make further cuts and [do] use this federal money to reinvest back in our City.”
Joshua Gonzelez, who works in equipment division for the city of Fullerton said, “I don’t believe the budget cuts should happen. We should invest in City services. We all take great pride in our work. We’re here to keep the City safe and clean.”
David Jones, who has worked for Fullerton for 5 years in the sewer division, said that when he first got hired, his department had 16 employees.
“We’re operating with seven now, and expected to do the same work. This is across the board with all departments. When COVID hit everything was affected. People were losing jobs, people were going home. We still had to go out and perform these duties. That was our job. We look at this as an investment. We’ve invested our lives and our efforts in this great City and we just would like the same in return,” Jones said.
Luis Carillo, who works in the water department, said that the City has more than 110 water main breaks per year. “A lot of those main breaks come in the middle of the night, so there are times we are out there working over 24 hours in a row, no sleep, operating machinery. We’re tired, we’re jack-hammering. We do it because it’s our responsibility to the community to make sure they have safe potable water–kids to shower in the morning, to drink. We don’t want to keep them out of water,” he said.
Fullerton resident Heather Sutherland said, “Hearing that the Council is considering making cuts to services especially while they’ve got this federal aid coming their way, it seems like the wrong move at the wrong time. As someone who uses our city services, I want to see our parks and trails continue to be maintained and safe for families such as mine. Having good services and amenities attracts people from elsewhere, which helps our local economy.”
“While you have been fiddling with the budget, the Fullerton police and fire departments have been burning,” Tony Package said. “Since this budget process has gone on and on, a half dozen sworn officers have resigned.”
One public commenter, Tanya McCrory, seemed to speak in favor of cuts.
“I don’t understand what people don’t understand about the fact that our City is broke, broke, broke,” McCrory said. “Currently police and fire get 70 cents on every dollar of our budget…the City has got to stop kicking the can down the busted up roads of Fullerton and be brave as a council and finally do what so many councils before you refused to do and balance this budget. You can’t just speak for the union workers. You have to speak for all the citizens of Fullerton.”
The next Fullerton City Council meeting is Tuesday, October 19 at 6:30pm. The public may make comments both virtually and in-person. To contact councilmembers e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (714) 738-6311.
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