COSTA MESA : Cuts Urged Outside of Police, Fire, Pay

The city should not drastically cut or freeze salaries or reduce the police or fire departments to balance next year's budget, but instead should try to find other ways to cope with substantially decreased sales tax revenue, officials said this week.

Those recommendations were made by members of a fiscal review committee formed to find ways to help the city whittle government expenses without severely affecting residents. The City Council has scheduled a daylong session for Jan. 11 to review the committee's suggestions and try to adapt them to the fiscal 1992-93 budget.

"I think their goal is to balance the budget with modifications to some services, without making anything hit so hard that it's felt by the public, so the impact is really minimal," said Chic Clarke, a planning commissioner and member of the fiscal review committee.

"By looking at a lot of those things in depth," Clarke said, "they can really make some more intelligent decisions on trimming little bits of areas here and there."

Some of the suggestions included more contracting for city services, such as operating its golf courses, maintenance, street sweeping and tree trimming. But the committee noted that contracting out services could lead to laying off city employees or selling some city equipment.

The committee was formed by the council in response to a sharp drop in sales tax revenue, which make up 40% of total city revenue. In more robust times, South Coast Plaza and other retail centers kept city ledgers well in the black, but the recession has depleted the flow of sales tax revenue. The city has projected that in the 1991-92 fiscal year, sales taxes will fall $2.1 million short of the $68-million municipal budget.

In a state-of-the-city article published in the December issue of the Costa Mesa Chamber of Commerce magazine, Mayor Mary Hornbuckle said the economy will force city leaders to re-evaluate priorities in coming years.

"Our position of relative wealth (had) allowed us to be quite magnanimous, knowing the sales tax dollars kept the coffers full," she wrote.

In the last of four meetings held by the eight-member fiscal review committee, made up of residents and city employees, members overwhelmingly opposed cutting staff salaries. They also supported keeping the police and fire department budgets at current levels, instead of forcing equal cuts in all departments.

"It was clear that the police and fire services would be at the bottom of the list of cutting in the public services areas," Clarke said, adding that parks and recreation services might be the most vulnerable to budget cuts.

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