Citizens heard at town hall meeting

A decent-sized crowd grilled the Yuma City Council and administration about budget transparency and communication, during a town hall meeting Monday night at the Yuma Community and Enrichment Center.
The city organized the meeting to answer questions regarding the general fund and enterprise funds. A total of 35 were in attendance. At one point, Mayor Ron Swehla, a veteran council member, noted it was the best turnout he remembers at a town hall meeting. (Another one on the same topic earlier this year attracted five participants.) A nine-page document covering frequently asked questions and information about the general and enterprise funds was provided to all who attended.

Swehla and council members Marylu Dischner-Smith, Marc Shay, Tim McClung and Daniel Ebersole were in attendance, along City Manager Scott Moore, City Clerk Karma Wells and Police Chief Jerry Thompson.
The municipal government is making the case it will need to find more revenue in order to continue all the General Fund services currently provided. It is quite possible the council will proceed with a sales tax increase ballot question in the November election.
General Fund services include police, fire, ambulance, library, streets, pool, airport, parks and recreation, and more.
Yuma’s current sales tax is 3 percent. The last increase of 1 percent, approved by the voters in 2003, took effect January 1, 2004.
The city is making the case that the increase in sales tax revenue since then is not keeping pace with the costs of providing General Fund services. Sales tax is the main revenue source for the General Fund, followed by property taxes. The increased costs mostly are due to salaries and benefits, with increased fees to the city also contributing. Equipment, vehicles, fuel, chip sealing, all have increased significantly since the last sales tax increase nearly 18 years ago.
The city drew down its General Fund reserves by $1.436 million in the 2021 budget.
City leaders were asked what amount of increase would they want. Moore said the General Fund needs about $1 million to maintain current services, which he said equates to a 2-percent sales tax increase.
It was pointed out to him that the city’s printout shows 1 percent generated $685,367, so maybe an increase of 1.5 percent would suffice.
Moore responded that the city cannot count on generating that much per 1 percent each year.
One participant suggested maybe considering an even bigger number to better cover services.
Citizens asked questions about how the salaries are reflected in the budget. A few years ago, some salaries, such as the city manager’s and other front office personnel, were divided into different departments to reflect the work those positions do with different departments.
The move was made at that point to help balance out the General Fund, and was deemed to be appropriate by the city attorney.
However, it was pointed out that makes it difficult for the public to discern what is the salary for certain positions, since the salary is spread out in the budget and simply lumped in with salaries in those different departments.
City staffers were asked why the city pays into both FICA (Social Security) and PERA, when it should have to do only one or the other. It was explained that decades ago when the council decided to join PERA, it also decided to keep with FICA as well. City Clerk/Treasurer Karma Wells said now it is too late for the city to get out of FICA.
Concerns were voiced about cutting back on pool hours and recreation department, as well as taking the community center out of the business of hosting large events. Those are ways to make money, but now the city wants more revenue through taxes.
Ebersole noted that the city spends a lot more on recreation programs that it makes in the fees.
McClung noted that there have not been any decisions about cuts. He said he wanted to know what the public wants — if they want more services, will raise more revenue; if they want less, the city will find ways to cut back on spending.
“We can’t continue to do more with less,” he said.
There was discussion about code enforcement being taken over again by the Yuma Police Department, and that a new code enforcement officer has been hired. That person also will do animal control.
City leaders were questioned if they are charging fees for everything they can. They were asked why contractors do not have to be licensed, suggesting it could bring in more revenue.
Discussion returned back to the community center. Moore explained the community center should not be in competition with private facilities in the community that can host events, such as dances, wedding receptions and such, and also said it was costly to maintain the community center after it was rented out for big events.
He also noted COVID hit right when the city was making the transition with the facility, and that activities will be picking up in the future. Moore did not answer when asked about a $54,000 part-time salary for the community center.
City leaders were told there needs to be more transparency and communication. Council members responded that everything is discussed in public meetings — council meetings are held the first and third Tuesday each month. They were held as Zoom meetings for more than a year, but now are held in-person again at City Hall.
Citizens asked why the budget and audit are not available on the city’s website. (The school district and county make their financial documents available on line; the schools have to due to a financial transparency legislation passed several years ago.)
Moore kind of stepped in it at that point, stating the city budget is not posted online because most people probably would not understand it. That did not sit well with the crowd.
It was explained an electronic copy will be emailed to anyone who makes a request, or they can look at a hard copy at City Hall.
Swehla told the crowd before the meeting ended that the council welcomes everyone to attend their budget workshops, which will be held later in the year, when they plan out the 2022 budget. All council gatherings are open to the public.