With a $3 million deficit, the city of La Verne implements new strategies

La Verne’s Liberty Bell replica tolls for happier financial times. In 1976, the city of La Verne purchased a cast Liberty Bell to celebrate the United States bicentennial. Of the 100 bells that were replicated in London from the White Chapel Foundry, two bells were awarded to each state, with La Verne and Bakersfield successfully bidding for California’s allotment. The bell represents the city’s heritage and freedom and is partnered with a time capsule buried on site July 4, 2000, which will be opened in 100 years on July 4, 2100. / photo by Nicholas Mitzenmacher

by Carly Hill
photography by Nicholas Mitzenmacher

As the country begins to pick itself up from the worst recession since the Great Depression, the city of La Verne is being forced to cut its 2011 budget to compensate for a deficit of more than $3 million, pulling services from citizens and taking cuts in departments. The budget for the city is currently presented at $42,122,870, and the $3 million deficit accounts for about 8 percent of the total budget. For La Verne’s residents, this means a decrease in services such as tree trimming and television coverage, and an increase in wait time for 9-1-1 calls. Even city officials who are making the cutbacks are facing challenges. Financial Director Ron Clark, who enjoys swimming laps in the evening at Las Flores Park, will have to find another exercise venue since the city of La Verne Aquatics Center will suspend year-round recreational swimming. Classes and swim teams will still be allowed at the Olympic-size swimming pool, but individuals who like to come work out or bring children to cool off on a hot day will not. “I happen to use the pool for swimming laps at night,” Clark says. “And now I can’t.”

Since 2008, La Verne has lost $700,000 from local sales tax revenue, plus property taxes have decreased $330,000. The lost revenue means the city budget will decrease 4 percent even with the infusion of $1 million in reserve monies. These reserves come from the prudent savings plan that city officials have implemented since the early ‘90s, when a four-day work week was implemented. “It’s a rainy day fund, and it’s raining,” says Fire Chief John Breaux. “Everybody is doing the best they can.” The Fire Department is taking a cut of one body for a total of 100 days. Because of this, Breaux reorganized his Department and reduced emergency response by one paramedic vehicle. “These are extreme times, and sometimes you have to take extreme measures,” says the chief.

Martin Lomelli, former city manager, retired summer 2010 but not before authoring La Verne’s recently approved budget. He writes in his “Annual Budget Recommendation” that “reductions in several departments will impact their operations. Such changes not only have an effect on services but also impact morale, making demands on managing departmental operations more complex.”

“We are constantly working to do morale boosting activities such as summer barbecues and potlucks,” Councilwoman Robin Carder says. But what can the city do to keep its citizens happy and content? The city of La Verne’s budget solution is to cut services and hope that the residents and businesses do not notice a difference. For example, the city of La Verne is reducing its contribution to the Friends of the Fourth of July by 50 percent. This group plans activities for the holiday, including the community parade and fireworks. “The businesses who are in charge feel that they are self-sufficient, and that they can run the activities themselves,” Carder says. “The event is not going to be cut.” However, LVTV-3 contract cuts will affect city coverage. “The city of La Verne completely eliminated its contribution to the funding of LVTV,” says Don Pollock, station manager. “All funding now comes from franchise fees from Time Warner and Verizon. These cuts amount to 40 percent of the LVTV budget. We needed to cut salaries and eliminate services such as providing low cost community producer classes, producing a monthly program guide and covering a number of La Verne events, especially school events. Our goal is still to provide the best service we can to the citizen’s of La Verne. Luckily, the University of La Verne has agreed to temporarily kick in some funding so we did not need to lay any employees off.”

To subtract $85,000 more from the budget, the city will reduce building inspections to only emergency situations, according to the budget statement. Presently, these business inspections are contracted out. Starting in January, buildings projects for commercial properties will not be inspected routinely, which could possibly cause health or safety hazards. Clark counters that while the inspection hours had to be scaled back, he hopes it will not have a major impact on the city.

Reductions in the Police Department also mean that future city parking enforcement will not be as rigorous. Some downtown business owners are not happy with city reductions. “It’s affecting everyone,” says Phillipe Sigal, owner of Sigal Diamonds on D Street. “They won’t trim the trees, fix the streets or control parking. Every other city spends money on their downtown, but we can’t even get our streets cleaned.” Richard Bassett, husband of the owner of the Sweet Shoppe, feels that lack of adequate parking is affecting business. “It makes it hard on merchants because they don’t have parking,” he says. Sigal complains that the city is spending thousands on bicycle racks that no one notices, but will not fix lights or the chipped paint on the “Aoki” Japanese restaurant sign. Jack Derian, owner of LV Cleaners, has lost hope in the city. “I don’t care,” he says. “I gave up a long time ago.”

The city has reduced key administrative positions in La Verne, including the assistant city manager and three planning committee positions. Clark says that five employees took early retirement this year, and another four did th same last year. City manager Bob Russi says he was affected when he was promoted to city manager from assistant, without receiving a new assistant. “Cutting positions is where it affects the departments,” Carder says. “They are pulling together to do more work with fewer people.” In the Finance Department, department employees have been cut drastically. “Three years ago, we had two full-time employees and one part-time employee. Now, we are down to one full time and one part time, so these people are having to work a lot harder,” Clark says. The city of La Verne parks department has been removed from the recreation department due to the elimination of the parks manager position. Now, the public works department will be in charge of parks. The effects from this position consolidation are unknown.

Although the new planning project, a multi-family housing project on Foothill Boulevard, is on the back burner until at least 2015, the city is attempting to work toward construction start ups of commercial structures. This would include putting stores and restaurants on the first floor of the planned D Street University residential hall building, which will begin construction spring 2011, as well as placing commercial property on First Street, near the University’s mail center and regional campus administrative office building (First and E streets) says Carder and Clark. Carder is anticipating the arrival of the Gold Line, which she hopes will bring new customers to the city. “The quality of life is No. 1 for our citizens,” Carder says. She cites other quality of life fixes: “We just passed an initiative banning smoking in parks.” (A separate ban affects students at the University of La Verne, who must smoke away from building entrances.)

For now, the city of La Verne is in a difficult position. “We’d like the economy to pick up again,” Clark says, “But we hope the average citizen won’t notice a drastic change in services.”

Sizing up salaries

The city of La Verne recently posted salaries for all full-time employees and city council members. The salaries are comparable to other cities of the same population and economic make-up.

•    La Verne City Council members: $519 a month
Claremont City Council members: $400 a month
•    La Verne City Manager Bob Russi: $169,000 a year, including a $550 per month gas stipend
Claremont City Manager: $211,000 a year
•    City of La Verne Police Chief: $145,000 a year
•    City of La Verne Fire Captain: $110,000 a year

In some other cities, the costs for police and fire have prompted city officials to contract out to the County of Los Angeles. However, Ron Clark, city of La Verne finance director, assures that La Verne will remain a full-service city for the time being.