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Council considers tough measures to balance budget

By: Tom Durkin
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In a marathon six-hour meeting last Thursday, the Colfax City Council, city staff and residents debated how to balance the general fund budget and pay for upgrades to the wastewater treatment system. Because it was a study session, the council did not vote on the budget-cutting proposals. However, the council did vote to prevent the loss of a $90,000 law enforcement grant and to award a $79,000 contract for an assessment of the city’s sewer pipe system. Compared to a proposed budget that was almost $400,000 out of balance at a June 19 workshop, City Manager Joan Phillipe and City Finance Director Dau Luc presented a revised budget proposal that was less than $9,000 out of balance. The main items on the budget chopping block were the contract with the Placer County Sheriff’s Department, cuts in city staff, and reduction in benefits for city employees. Council members reaffirmed their commitment to maintaining the city’s contract with the Placer County Sheriff’s Department to staff a substation in Colfax. Nevertheless, they are considering a cutback in services. Colfax Sub-station commander Sgt. Troy Minton-Sander and Sheriff’s Office Administrative Services Manager Barbara Besana offered a revised budget that would eliminate one traffic enforcement position and reduce overtime by 50 percent. The new contract would be $94,000 less than last year’s contract, Besana said. If Colfax were to terminate the sheriff’s approximately $500,000 contract and shut down the substation, the department would have to lay off five deputies, Besana said. This would not only reduce law enforcement protection for the city, but also for the entire area served by the Colfax substation, including Weimar, Applegate, Gold Run and Dutch Flat. As an indication they are determined to maintain a contract with the sheriff’s department, council members unanimously passed a resolution to divert a $90,000 community-policing grant for traffic enforcement to fund other community-policing efforts by the sheriff’s substation. At the beginning of the evening, Mayor Sherrie Blackmun announced the council had, in closed session, “directed staff to decrease the cost of clerical and public works.” Council, however, is prohibited by law from divulging specific details because personnel issues are confidential until actual decisions are made. Some residents complained the council is not considering cutting back or eliminating the city manager’s position. However, all four council members – Blackmun, Josh Alpine, Suzanne Roberts and Ken Delfino – remained adamant that Phillipe’s expertise and experience are a mission-critical component of cost-effective city management. Under pressure from residents, however, council members indicated they would consider cutting city-paid health insurance benefits to some employees to balance the general fund budget. As the result of the recent defeat of a proposed increase in sewer rates, the city is faced with an inability to pay off a debt for its old wastewater treatment plant – not to mention the cost of building the new treatment plant and upgrading the sewage collection system. The city is facing debts of more than $1 million that will not be covered by the current sewer rates, reported City Finance Director Dau Luc. City Manager Phillipe reported she has appeared before the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board numerous times pleading on behalf of the city for relief from the unfunded mandates required to upgrade the city’s sewage system. “I don’t see your faces behind me,” she told the gathering. A large show of community support would help immensely in getting the water board to understand how devastating the mandates – and fines – are on a small, disadvantaged community like Colfax, she said. After two delays, the council awarded a $79,000 contract to Fletcher’s Plumbing & Contracting Inc. The contract is to conduct a full-scale inflow-and-infiltration (I&I) study of the city’s sewer pipes as required by CVRWQCB. Concerned the I&I study might reveal expensive problems for low-income property owners, Alpine abstained while the other three council members voted to award the contract. The actual vote to adopt the city general fund budget is scheduled for Sept. 9.