Arvin Mayor Pro Tem Jazmin Robles was not a happy camper. "We have a problem and it's not a small one," said Robles after a special city council meeting last week. "It's a big problem."
It's a $1.8 million problem. That's the size of the budget deficit the city is facing in its general fund for the current fiscal year. Thing is, though, the city just adopted its $7.7 million budget a few months ago and Robles says she and her fellow council members were never given any prior indication that something was amiss.
"That's completely unnacceptable," said Robles.
The general fund contains allocations for the city's major departments such as police, administration, parks and planning, animal control and others.
One-point-eight million may not seem that much compared to the budget of other cities such as Bakersfield. But for Arvin, with a population of around 21,000, that is huge. And in case you haven't noticed, the city isn't exactly wallowing in money. The vast majority of residents here are working class with seasonal jobs in the fields. The route taken by young people here to finding better opportunities is through education, completing high school and then on to college in the hope of landing a good paying job. And if the city is lucky, some may return to live in Arvin and contribute to the city's coffers through property taxes.
So here's my question: How did the city wind up in this situation? "We (the city council) make our decisions based on the information that we're given. And the information that we were given were bad numbers based on bad accounting," said the mayor pro tem.
Why wasn't this nearly $2 million mistake caught earlier? "I don't have an answer for that," said City Manager Alfonso Noyola.
He explained that an audit performed last year by the Pun Group accounting firm concluded the city had its financial house in order with no glaring irregularities. It wasn't until a second audit, completed in August, that troubling issues and practices were identified. And what were those? "It's a number of variables that we have seen as we started going back through the historical records," said the city manager. "It's actually a culmination of a number of issues that have occurred from as far back as 2009."
The audit notes that due to the general fund cash shortfall, the city borrowed from its Traffic Impact Fees Special Revenue Fund to pay for expenditures incurred by other funds. The audit called this practice an improper stewardship of funds.
During the special city council meeting last week, no one on the Arvin City Council asked city staff the question: Who messed up? It's almost as if they were afraid to ask out of fear of offending someone. And what is being done to ensure this won't happen again? Where were the checks and balances to prevent something like this from happening? Those are legitimate questions that the elected representatives need to provide answers for; the tax-paying people they represent demand it.
It's not about placing blame. It's about holding public servants accountable, especially when they're dealing with the people's money. Robles acknowledged the city council should have been vigilant and shown more oversight of city staff.
"They did their mistake, we did our mistake and now we have to fix it," she said.
The other part of the special city council meeting was spent figuring out a way to resolve the messy matter. Noyola said the council needs to take action real soon, because waiting only makes the situation worse.
He recommended two things. The council needs to make budget adjustments of $800,000 and also do a one time repayment of $1 million from an enterprise fund to the general fund. Sort of like robbing Peter to pay Paul. But here's the rub: any "adjustments" include the possibility of staff layoffs, a fact not lost on city employees who spoke up before the city council.
"What verifiable information is being given to you besides a set of numbers?" asked Perla Fikter, who works as an accountant. "Don't make rash decisions because you feel pressured."
Others said layoffs should be avoided at all costs. "I would rather see everybody take a cut in hours," said Rosemary Chavez, an employee with Community Development. "We're all a team."
The city has around 60 employeees and Noyola acknowledged that six positions stand to be eliminated, four of which are currently vacant. Besides possible layoffs, just what other adjustments the city may make is anybody's guess right now.
The city council is expected to vote on the matter at its next regular meeting Nov. 7. Should be a lively one.
And there's one more thing. Because of the financial miscalculations, Arvin is already facing another deficit for fiscal year 2018-19 which could be as high as $1.2 million. So, somehow, city council members will have to resolve that matter as well. City Manager Noyola remains optimistic.
"Many cities go through financial crisis and almost every city finds a way," he said. "We will find a way to come back again and get out of this particular fiscal crisis."
Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a news anchor/reporter for Telemundo Bakersfield and KGET. Email him at email@example.com. His work appears here every third Monday; the views expressed are his own.