Signal Hill budget workshop highlights both successes and newer concerns

By CJ Dablo
Staff Writer

Yes, Signal Hill presented a few fat numbers that mark another balanced budget for the city’s next fiscal year. Yet, Tuesday night’s budget workshop made it clear that the Council will still have to determine how they’ll manage increased costs and which programs and services will be essential to keep.
“We used to say, ‘Is it nice or necessary?’ I think now we’ve been using the term, ‘Is it nice or absolutely necessary?” said Councilmember Michael Noll at the May 24 meeting at the Council Chambers.
The good news: following a Council mandate to cut two percent from the budget starting in the fiscal year of 2009-2010, the City has so far saved $1.2 million, according to a staff report. Signal Hill has saved money in a few areas highlighted at the evening workshop. They’ve initiated a hiring freeze on non-police staff positions. They’ve now required employees to contribute part of their paychecks to their retirement benefits. They have not offered cost-of-living adjustment increases to the City personnel for the last two years.
The revenues for the City are also up. The estimated revenue is $16.4 million for Fiscal Year 2011-2012, which is 10 percent more than the estimated $14.9-million revenue projected for Fiscal Year 2010-2011, according to a report by Maida Alcantara, Signal Hill’s finance director.
This revenue projection includes a more positive outlook for city sales-tax revenues. The director reported that those revenues are projected to be almost 9 percent more in 2011-2012 than what was projected for the current fiscal year.
The bad news: the City Council will soon need to make key decisions that will affect the city’s services. The Water Replenishment District (WRD) has increased fees to the City by 64 percent since 2008. The public works department has projected a budget of $789,800 for the program that ensures compliance with environmental standards for managing the waste that gets into the storm drain. And last, but not least, the future of a childcare program is on the line.
Even in a 2.2-square-mile city, the numbers still affect the quality of life of the people who depend on its services, even down to the littlest residents who call Signal Hill their home.
A few parents joined the workshop to voice their concern that Kids Kamp, a childcare program targeted towards kindergarten through fifth-grade students, may soon shut down. According to a city report, the staff weighed a few options and eventually recommended to the Council to close down Kids Kamp and then expand what is now an informal “drop-in” after-school program that is free of charge to parents. No before-school care would be available under this program. About 15 kids attend Kids Kamp in the current fiscal year. Six years ago, about 47 kids participated in the program.
According to the report from Pilar Alcivar-McCoy, director of community services, families have chosen to use other options for their childcare needs. Kids Kamp costs approximately $395 per month for city residents to enroll a child in both the before- and after-school childcare program. The report suggests that one of the reasons the program has seen a decline in attendance may have to do with cost.
“Both Alvarado and Signal Hill Elementary School offer free after-school programs,” Alcivar-McCoy said in her report. “Signal Hill has a maximum capacity of 120 students, and Alvarado has a maximum capacity of 85 students. Both programs are currently full with long waiting lists.”
A recent analysis of the current fiscal year determined that the program will cost about $70,200 over the projected budget, according to the report from Alcivar-McCoy. The Community Services director indicated that the decline in attendance has played a large part in the program’s budget problem. In addition, the state requirements for staff-child ratios make it difficult to continue the program as it is currently structured, Alcivar-McCoy confirmed.
Two mothers who enrolled their kids in the Kids Kamp said Tuesday night they were concerned about their options and that childcare waiting lists are too long.
“If this program is taken away from us, the parents will just start all over again. Just like me. What are we going to do? Where are we going to go?” said Alexandra Ramirez, a mother of a 9-year-old child. “We’re struggling too,” she said, asking the Council to take the parents into consideration.
“I really hate to hear that they’re going to discontinue the [before-school childcare]. That would really hurt me,” said Vanessa Robinson, another parent who said she used the program for her daughter in the mornings before school began.
Signal Hill resident Sanjeev Thakkar said that his 6-year-old son has been enrolled now for his second year. Thakkar said he could find another program, but he questions what it would mean if the City does shut down the program now then restart it when it can afford it again.
“It worries me a little bit, and that’s not really the type of community I want to live in…I’d like to think that we’re all neighbors and we take care of each other in good times and bad,” Thakkar said. “And it would be a little disheartening to see that, you know, because of certain budget constraints you guys are not taking care of the young people in the community.”
Even though the childcare program has only been serving about 15 kids, Vice Mayor Tina Hansen emphasized that the issue is part of a larger social problem for the city: young children whose parents have allowed them to stay on their own in the park and library for hours.
The library staff offers homework help. There is a recreational program as well in the park. In these programs, kids can come and go at will without a requirement to have parents sign them in and out.
“What do we do about those kids? We can’t turn our backs on those kids either,” said Hansen. “So… to me, it’s a larger picture.”
“That’s a major decision that we have to make,” said Mayor Larry Forester in a Tuesday night interview. “It’s a $70,000 negative for us to continue it. That’s a lot of money. I mean, in today’s day, that could be half a police officer, etc. so we have to look at it very wisely.”
Since the workshop was an informational meeting that highlighted the issues at stake, the Council did not make any financial decisions that evening. Forester warned that in addition to the childcare issues, the City will have to consider how the state budget may affect the city’s finances. State legislators have not come to a conclusion on whether to take away funding from redevelopment agencies in order to solve the state’s own budget deficit problems.
“We have no idea what the state is going to take away from us still,” Forester said. “They’re still talking about redevelopment. They’re still talking about some other things. I think this was a very wise, thought-out, and I would say, a conservative budget.”
The City Council will consider recommendations to adjust the next fiscal year’s budget at its meeting on June 21. The next City Council meeting will be Tuesday, June 7 at 7pm.

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