The city of Belmont is experiencing revenue growth but as the City Council prepares to approve its budget for the upcoming fiscal year, it is taking lessons learned from the economic recession and applying it by bolstering its reserves while balancing its need to fund decades of deferred infrastructure maintenance.
While keeping the goal of stability in mind, some councilmembers would like to fund initiatives such as planning to create a vibrant downtown and improvements to Belmont’s parks and Ralston Avenue.
The council will vote June 10 to approve its fiscal year 2014-15 budget, said the city’s Finance Director Thomas Fil.
“It was a shake-up for everybody, the extent of the recession was unprecedented in most people’s lifetimes,” Fil said. “We could see that we had to make serious changes … and made some structural changes and employees stepped up to the plate and changed their benefit programs. All those factors are now working to help us be in a much stronger position. So the silver lining to have gone through that recession was, I think we’re stronger in many respects and more resilient than we’d been in the past.”
Mayor Warren Lieberman and Councilman Eric Reed said the city’s strong financial position could primarily be credited the finance department’s wise recommendations and staff who agreed to contribute more toward their retirement plans.
The majority of the city’s revenue comes from property and sales taxes as well as fees for services and permits, Fil said. The city is expected to take in about $57 million, which includes the Belmont Protection Fire District, and will likely spend about $61 million in this fiscal year, according to a staff report. The proposed budget for the next fiscal year has $70 million in revenue and $63 million in expenses.
Changes in state laws could also have an effect by requiring the city to pay about $600,000 in property tax annually to account for the new Local Control Funding Formula for schools and the contended $1.3 million the state seeks for former redevelopment agency activities, according to the report.
One of the city’s biggest hurdles is how to fund the nearly $100 million in maintenance to the city’s streets, storm system and parks that’s been deferred for decades, Fil said. Outside of that amount and already funded, is another huge drain to the tune of $90 million, which the city will spend to upgrade its sewer collection system. Forty-five million dollars of that is for the drains and pumps within city limits and the remainder is Belmont’s portion of a $500 million sewage treatment plant rehabilitation project, Fil said.
“It’s trying to come up with efforts to deal with these backlog of issues, but as long as they’re out there without a plan, the risk is anytime we have a failure in the storm system, in the streets, in buildings and our parks, it has the potential for destabilizing the city. Because they tend to be pretty serious by and large and they’re the sort of the kinds of things you have to stop doing other things to fix,” Fil said.
Reed said tackling these needs will be a hefty undertaking and will require years of planning to make a significant dent.
The council is contemplating the efficacy of a ballot measure asking the public to help support a bond geared at addressing the needs, to which the public seems to be amenable, said Councilman Charles Stone.
Due to the timing and legalities, the public may not see something until November 2105 election, Fil said.
The proposed budget recommends beefing up the city’s reserve policy from 25 percent of operating expenditures, or three months, to 33 percent, which equates to four months, Fil said.
Reed said he’s in support of increasing the reserve policy, but wants to ensure it doesn’t detract from upcoming projects.
“I think a prudent reserve, where we have (in the proposal) now, I think is the best policy given recent economic events,” Reed said. “I would like Belmont to be able to weather the next economic downturn without a significant reduction in services.”
Stone said he and Reed are excited about the potential economic development downtown and want to ensure staff has access to the resources it needs. While Stone said he’s not interested in necessarily hiring new employees or contractors, he wants the community development and legal departments to have adequate resources to enable the city to proceed with updating the city’s general plan, housing element and creating the Belmont Village Zoning plan for downtown.
Reed and Lieberman said they want to continue to invest in recreational amenities, including planning for Davey Glen Park and building a restroom at Alexander Park.
“A strong parks and rec department and strong parks programs make a city a very enjoyable place to live. So having good recreation opportunities is kind of one of the key things to improving the quality of life to a lot of the residents,” Lieberman said.
Although the city still has a long list of expenses, the recovering economy and assistance from staff have allowed Belmont to provide for its citizens, Fil said.
“In the past, essentially we were more in a survival mode … we’d always plan for the next five years but it was essentially a budget-to-budget existence. But now, with this higher level of fund balance and more stability and the fact that we’re more focused on these long term obligations, we’ve turned the page and we’re now in a position to have a predictable level of service we can provide,” Fil said. “We can weather some storms here now.”
To review Belmont’s proposed 2014-15 budget visit www.belmont.gov.
The City Council will meet to review and vote on the proposed budget at a 7 p.m. meeting June 10 at City Hall, 1 Twin Pines Lane, Belmont.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106