City budget workshop highlights financial uncertainty wrought by pandemic

Sam Richards

Classic Zoom May 2020: Piedmont Finance Director Michael Szczech (top left) and City Administrator Sara Lillevand conduct a budget workshop online

PIEDMONT —The only thing certain about the City of Piedmont’s budget for 2020-2021 is that it will be chock full of uncertainties, thanks to the negative ripple effects of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

As the city prepares to approve a fiscal year 2020-2021 budget before the end of June, its financial officers are bracing for higher personnel costs and lower revenues, as well as frequent adjustments based on weekly (and sometimes daily) changes in shelter-in-place rules and the possibility the state may not come through with grants and other payments the city has been expecting.

Piedmont is in a “relatively favorable” overall budget position, City Administrator Sara Lillevand said, but the rules around the coronavirus seem to be changing every week, or more frequently than that.  

“We could not imagine the world we’re navigating at present,”  City Administrator Sara Lillevand said at a City Council budget workshop Saturday morning. “This is a far-from-ordinary budget.”

And money for outstanding long-term issues — upgrades for many of the city’s buildings, replacing the Piedmont swimming pool — will almost certainly not be available again this coming fiscal year, various participants said Saturday morning.

In the city’s draft 2019-2020 budget, Lillevand said the city is expecting a  $900,000 shortfall for the fiscal year, which ends June 30. That figure, she said, could have been far worse; she credited conservative, frugal past spending, combined with a budget that is about 70 percent funded by relatively low-risk property tax-related income, rather than the more volatile sales tax income that has devastated the budget prospects of some East Bay cities.

The city’s property-tax-related income is expected to rise slightly next year by about 2.7 percent, to about $20,345,000, city Finance Director Michael Szczech said.

But the city’s personnel costs, which make up about 67 percent of the city’s budget, figure to go up about 7 percent in 2020-2021. Part of that, Szczech said, is an anticipated 17 percent increase in retirement costs, related to CalPERS (state retirement) funding and investment issues.  

Piedmont Finance Director Michael Szczech goes over some of the budget numbers during Saturday’s City Council budget workshop.

Also, the city is expecting a decrease of at least 15 percent from the Measure B (and its extension, Measure BB) transportation sales tax measure for the coming fiscal year.

All department leaders said on Saturday that COVID-19-related uncertainty is affecting virtually all city operations, but perhaps none more than for the Recreation Department, which possibly is most directly affected by the rules set by the Alameda County Health Department. For the Rec Department, that has meant cancellation of almost every live class or event, as well as cancellation of this summer’s adult softball season and postponements of events booked at city facilities including the Community Hall.

Abiding by COVID-19 restrictions will also require major changes in the department’s Schoolmates educational daycare program setting a maximum number of kids that can be served at one time. Those changes, Recreation Director Chelle Putzer and others said, will come as demand for child care services will be at a premium, especially as other providers either curtail operations or close altogether because of COVID-19-related restrictions.

“Schoolmates is going to look dramatically different; we’re really going to have to adapt,” Putzer said. “It will be a big shift.” 

One recent change will allow for a new in-person kids’ camp, which Putzer calls “Camp (Almost) Everything.” Four-week sessions will start June 1, she said, but enrollments will be limited, in observance of county distancing and congregating rules.  

Even in the midst of the cautionary talk and creative ways to both preserve services and adhere to county health officers’ various coronavirus mandates, there is talk of establishing a new position at Piedmont City Hall — sustainability manager. The draft 2020-2021 budget includes this new position, which would be responsible for various environmental service issues. That position would be largely self-funded through grants, and Kevin Jackson, Piedmont’s director of planning and building, said the position is essentially a “cost-neutral.”  

Council members were generally supportive; Vice Mayor Teddy Gray King said, “We can set the standard for what it means to be an environmentally responsible municipality.”

Lillevand said she expects to formally present a 2020-2021 budget to the City Council at its June 1 meeting. It likely won’t look the same as the one discussed Saturday, she said, because so much is changing all the time.

“It will look different on June 1, which has not been the case in recent years,” Lillevand said.

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