Burlingame’s budget is beaten but not broken by the global pandemic, according to officials who examined the income losses brought by a weakened economy.
The Burlingame City Council discussed the financial disruption expected to take hold over the coming fiscal year during a study session Wednesday, May 13.
The session featured a marked departure from the tone of previous discussions regarding the budget, which was fueled by a humming travel industry prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent shutdown.
Plummeting airport traffic and vacant hotel rooms gutted a main source of income, according to a presentation from Finance Director Carol Augustine, who projected significant transient occupancy tax losses.
Burlingame should expect about $16 million in hotel tax in the next fiscal year, down from $20 million the year before and $29 million the year prior, according to Augustine’s projections. She said discussions with hotel executives fueled expectations the industry could see some recovery over the coming months.
In all, income to the city’s general fund was projected to hit $66 million in the coming fiscal year, down from $69 million in the existing year and $84 million the year prior.
A stable property tax base and limited spending should bolster a budget also showing less sales tax income, continuing a trend identified previously by officials who have projected significant shifts in the local retail sector as more shopping is done online.
Yet despite the bleak projections, some councilmembers called for even more conservative budgeting with an expectation that the economy could be even slower to recover than shown in the proposed budget.
“When I look at what is happening to the economy, and I mean that both locally and nationally, it feels like a combination of both 9/11 and the Great Recession,” said Councilman Michael Brownrigg. “Because we have this massive hit to travel and hospitality and then we have the inevitable hit to the economy.”
Additionally, Brownrigg suggested some of the revenue projections did not accurately reflect the losses he anticipated will occur.
“I am concerned our scenario is probably too optimistic,” he said.
Fellow councilmembers agreed, and said they’d prefer to construct a conservative outlook and be pleasantly surprised by a more rapid recovery than the alternative scenario. Augustine said she could amend some of the projections and bring the proposed budget back for further consideration in advance of the June approval deadline.
It was not all bad news for Burlingame though, as officials noted the city was positioned well to weather the financial storm.
To that end, there are no job or service cuts projected in the budget and the city expects to continue paying its pension debt obligations. Much of the initial budget crunch is expected to be covered by a reduced capital improvement plan, from which $8 million was drawn.
For the upcoming fiscal year, officials anticipate the city will preserve a reserve funds worth $36 million with $15 million set aside for economic stability, $2 million for catastrophe and $5 million unassigned, among other funds.
“This is a rainy day and we have a big umbrella,” said Councilman Ricardo Ortiz.
Councilwoman Donna Colson said how proud she is that the city managed its budget in a fashion which would allow officials to fend off service cuts and layoffs during an unexpected fiscal emergency.
Brownrigg shared a similar perspective.
“We are in a great position for this maelstrom,” he said.
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