Truckee prepares for state budget battle

Christina Nelson

Thirty-five billion dollars is a hard figure to swallow for local governments that budget within their means, and for residents whose checking accounts will probably never see a million dollars, let alone a billion.

At a press conference in mid-December, Gov. Gray Davis announced that the state budget deficit had reached almost that – $35 billion.

Or the amount of money it would take to operate Truckee town services, at its current budget, for approximately 1,590 fiscal years.

After the state shifted taxes about ten years ago to balance the budget by using money that would normally go to local services, local officials and special districts are preparing for the worse, and fighting to keep local money in the hands of local government.

“It’s happened before, so we expect it will happen again,” Town Manager Steve Wright said.

Basically, Wright said, the state took money from local government and put it in the state’s budget.

The town derives about $4 million from property taxes for its yearly budget – but the state could take up to half a million of that this year – possibly affecting police and public works services depending on how long the tax shift lasts.

Many Truckee and North Lake Tahoe special districts avoided the last tax shift because of a loophole that excluded bi-county districts.

“The state has basically said, ‘We know you’re out there, but you’re not likely to dodge it this time,'” Wright said.

“The state of California didn’t bail us out this weekend,” said Fire Chief Mike Terwilliger at the Dec. 19 Truckee Town Council meeting. “The local Truckee services did.”

Terwilliger was praising the efforts of the town and special districts during that week’s storm, which left hundreds in Truckee without power, some without heat or water, and left trees across roads, fallen on homes and suspended on power lines.

Terwilliger is afraid the state could take $600,000 off the top of the Truckee Fire Protection District’s budget.

“That equates to firefighters,” he said. “That will keep us from staffing the Glenshire Fire Station.”

Already, the fire district has an 11- to 12-minute response time to Glenshire. The fire district covers approximately 66 square miles and receives about 2,400 calls for service a year.

Terwilliger said that 24 years working for the California Department of Forestry taught him a lot about what state agencies do when they’re told to cut back on spending – basically they use a lot of “smoke and mirror” techniques to avoid budget cuts while special districts carry the burden.

“When we were told to cut 15 percent of our budget, our directions were to come up with ways to not cut,” Terwilliger said. “I worked for the state for 24 years and I know the game very well.”

Officials across the board are amazed that such a state budget deficit even exists, while local agencies work hard to spend within their means and build reserves for unsure financial times.

“It’s outrageous from a local government perspective,” Wright said. “They created the problem and they don’t have the willingness to solve it on their own.”

Dave Gotschall, general manager of the Truckee Tahoe Airport, said the state could take up to 25 percent of airport property tax revenue, which could equal approximately $500,000.

That money is usually used for capital improvements and operations costs. In preparation for the tax shift, Gotschall said the airport will scale down its capital improvement plans until the state budget is more stable and unlikely to attack local funding.

“We’re in a situation where we’re going to pay the price for our frugality,” Gotschall said.

Of course, that’s a worst case scenario, but no one in local government has the luxury of a best case scenario.

“Nobody’s holding the state of California’s feet to the fire,” Terwilliger said, adding that Truckee residents need to write to their elected officials about the budget crisis.

To voice your concerns about the budget deficit and possible cuts to local service districts, write to Senator Rico Oller, State Capitol, Room 2048, Sacramento, Calif. 95814; Assemblyman Rick Keene, State Capitol, Room 5160, Sacramento, Calif. 95814; or Gov. Gray Davis, State Capitol Building, Sacramento, Calif. 95814. Include your name and address with all correspondence.

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