Fullerton City Council voted 3-2 (Silva and Zahra “no”) to approve 2.5% across the board budget cuts at their March 15 meeting.
The cuts will affect 21 staff positions, including the elimination of four police officers, four firefighters, one maintenance worker, one Parks and Recreation Assistant, two Library positions, and other positions. Most of these positions are currently vacant, meaning funded but not filled. These cuts are on top of an additional $3.8 million reduction incorporated into the adopted budget.
Mayor Fred Jung, Mayor Pro Tem Bruce Whitaker, and Councilmember Nick Dunlap, who voted for the cuts, argued that they were necessary to balance a structural deficit.
While the cuts do put the City in a better position fiscally by eliminating the current deficit and adding to the City’s reserve fund, Fullerton has seen a strong resurgence in post-COVID revenue growth. Sales tax and transient occupancy tax revenues are projected to grow by over $5 million during this fiscal year.
Based on this revenue growth, City projections show the structural deficit disappearing even without the 2.5% cuts by fiscal year (FY) 2023/24, although, according to Interim City Manager Jeff Collier, the cuts allow for a stronger contingency reserve to protect against future financial uncertainty.
Fullerton’s finances are also being helped by the use of $32 million of federal relief dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act. Mayor Pro Tem Whitaker and Councilmember Dunlap had argued in previous meetings to use most of those funds for road repair rather than staffing and services.
During the March 15 meeting, Councilmembers and the public argued for and against cuts at a time when Fullerton already faces significant staffing shortages, which it could have shored up with a greater application of ARPA funds.
Councilmembers Ahmad Zahra and Jesus Silva argued against the proposed cuts. Silva proposed an alternative 1.5% cut. This motion failed.
Zahra said that a budget is more than just numbers, that there are real world consequences to cuts.
“If the direction is just to balance numbers, then yay, we did it,” he said. But if our goal is to provide safety, clean parks, good support for our businesses and planning so there are no delays, investing in economic development, if this is our goal, then we are not achieving it with this.”
A staff report accompanying the 2.5% cut agenda item explains in detail the specific impact of cuts to each department. Some excerpts include:
Police: “The elimination of these additional sworn personnel will result in further collapse of specialized units as these additional Police Officer cuts will necessitate the reassignment of non-patrol officers to patrol.”
Fire: “Long-term and a high quantity of vacancies do not allow our Firefighters with a proper work/rest cycle because of mandatory, constant staffing overtime leading to increased potential for injuries, burnout, and stress on families.”
Public Works: “The reduction of Maintenance Worker positions has resulted in servicing high-use parks on a biweekly rather than on a weekly basis and servicing low-use parks and median areas only on a four-to-six-week schedule.”
Parks and Recreation: “The elimination of these two positions results in further reductions or cancellation of recreation programs. The two assistant positions provide support in planning and supporting the City-wide events, youth programs, and Fullerton Community Center programs and operations.”
The Parks and Rec Department saw major staffing losses during the pandemic. The staff report reads, “With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and programming closures due to initial stay-at-home orders, the Parks and Recreation Department has had a staff reduction of seven full-time staff and over 100 part-time staff between FY 2019-20 and FY 2021-22. The number of full-time staff has been reduced from 21 to 14 including the two Parks and Recreation Assistant positions.”
Library: “The loss of a Library Technical Assistant I impacts the timely check-out of books, extends the time to prepare library circulation statistical reports, delays the purchase and timely receipt and logging of library materials (books, audiobooks, etc.)….. further reduction of non-regular hours greatly limits the Library’s ability to maintain minimal support for the currently limited operating hours of the Library.”
Management: The City currently has 11 vacancies within the management ranks, which represents approximately 25% of budgeted non-sworn supervisors and managers…Vacancies at this level place a strain on other management staff or require the use of outside consultants to perform critical functions normally assigned to an internal manager.”
The staff report concludes, “If staffing and service levels do not increase in the coming year there is a likelihood of producing a cumulative risk to public safety, deferred maintenance related to our facilities, and increased liability.”
Mayor Jung said, “The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects the wind to change. The realist simply adjusts the sails, and that’s what we’re doing right now.”
Mayor Pro Tem Whitaker cited two other factors that have impacted Fullerton’s budget over many years— deferred infrastructure maintenance and unfunded pension liability.
“To think that we can sail through with business as usual is just not realistic,” Whitaker said.
Fullerton currently has 135 vacant or unfilled positions. Some of these have been intentionally kept vacant to save money, and some are due to employees leaving or being laid off. Some departments are particularly understaffed. The landscape division, for example, currently has four positions filled of 18 budgeted. This is, in part, because that department has been kept intentionally understaffed since 2017 in anticipation of an outsourcing plan that was halted by the pandemic.
Collier said that Council has approved 67 of the vacant positions to be filled. So, despite the cuts, the City will be hiring additional people in the coming months.
However, moving forward, Fullerton’s staffing levels will likely remain below historic levels. A public records request submitted by The Observer reveals that in 2018, the city of Fullerton had 663 employees. As of March 21, Fullerton has 567 employees.
At one point during the March 15 meeting, Mayor Jung asked Collier why the 2.5% cuts were coming from staffing reductions and not something else.
“Basically, people provide services, and that’s what local government is,” Collier said.
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