A 2020-2021 Walnut Creek general fund operating budget of about $79 million, down almost $12 million from last year and more than $12 million less than what was originally anticipated for this coming year before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, was approved late Tuesday night by the Walnut Creek City Council.
The newly adopted 2020-21 budget includes cutting 19.25 full-time-equivalent job positions, mostly from the city’s arts and recreation programs, all but one — a vacant police lieutenant’s spot — currently filled.
These cuts, along with furloughs and pay concessions by top city executives, are expected to save the city $3.7 million. Additionally, further furloughs and/or other money-saving concessions with employee bargaining groups are ongoing; the final total of job cuts and hours reductions should be known this fall.
The various cuts were made in response to a projected $12.1 million general fund budget deficit for 2020-21. Walnut Creek’s budget situation, like that in virtually every California city, has been turned upside down by the loss of sales tax revenue and transient occupancy taxes from hotel and motel stays resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic. The resulting shelter-in-place orders kept people mostly at home and out of businesses and performance spaces.
Walnut Creek lost significant revenue related to the cancellation of the arts and recreation classes and programming, including events at the Lesher Center of the Arts — all direct consequences of the pandemic.
All five council members rued the fact people will lose their jobs, and Councilwoman Cindy Silva acknowledged that the loss of so many arts and recreation positions adds more sting.
“(Arts and recreation) is a centerpiece of what we do in Walnut Creek — it differentiates us.”
When Silva asked City Manager Dan Buckshi whether any of those jobs could be salvaged, Buckshi said that, especially given that the Lesher Center remains closed, the revenue needed to support those jobs isn’t there.
Also taking a major hit — about $913,000 — in the 2020-2021 budget is the city’s Police Department. Nevertheless, many of the public comments to the council Tuesday night implored further cuts, “defunding” the police and spending that money for other services.
Walnut Creek police received criticism not only in the wider national context of defunding, but for their specific actions in June 2019 for the killing by police of Miles Hall, shot during a mental health-related episode, and for what many say was excessive response to local protests following the May death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed by police in Minneapolis.
The approved budget includes new funding for various police training, including anti-bias training, but that didn’t console the critics.
Natalie McCulloch told the council:
“Walnut Creek police need more training only because they’ve failed. And they should not be rewarded with more funding.”
Councilman Justin Wedel countered that progress is being made toward needed reforms.
“Change takes time, and for some reason, change takes longer in government.”
Councilmembers also said Walnut Creek police officials have been working to better respond to mental health-related calls. Police Chief Tom Chaplin said the department is now studying the kinds of calls that might be better served by a “non-police response” from mental health experts, homeless outreach workers or others with specialized training.
Police are also working to set up meetings with Contra Costa County officials about prospects for a team of officers trained for responses to situations beyond those to which they typically respond.
The approved budget also calls for cutting support to various community groups by 14 percent — about $79,000 — for 2020-21. Several notable entities, including the Lindsay Wildlife Experience, the Gardens at Heather Farm, the Walnut Creek Historical Society and the annual Walnut Festival, get direct and/or in-kind city support.
Also affected by these specific cuts will be school crisis counselors, school crossing guards, the city’s Concert Band, plus park concerts, school concerts and Community Service Grants.
Councilmembers said they want more information about how many schools will be affected by the reduced crossing guard money, to make sure the cuts are spread over more schools rather than fewer; that issue may well be revisited.
Also cut on Tuesday was funding to keep Walnut Creek’s two library branches open for hours beyond the baseline 35 per week as provided by the county library system. They also said they look forward to working with the Walnut Creek Library Foundation to restore at least some of those hours starting Jan. 1, 2021.
The operating budget was approved by a 4-1 vote. The dissenter was Wedel, who maintained the city has still not gotten to “zero-based budgeting” because reserves are being used to balance it. But the other four councilmembers said there’s a reason why cities have budget reserves.
Mayor Pro Tem Kevin Wilk said:
“If ever there was a need to use catastrophe funds, this is it, if it keeps services going, keeps the city open.”
And Mayor Loella Haskew said there’s plenty of uncertainty ahead, given what may or may not happen with Covid-19.
“I’m really scared about what’s coming down the pike.”