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Town Council OKs blowdown budget; town is (painfully) balanced

June 22, 2012

New Mayor Matthew Lehman's first act was to give outgoing mayor Jo Bacon a plaque of appreciation for her work at the helm. His second act was to sign the budget. Photo/George Shirk

In the end, there was nothing left to cut; there wasn’t much to discuss.

The Mammoth Lakes Town Council passed an extraordinary “bare bones” 2012-13 budget Wednesday evening, leaving anger, heartache and uncertainty in its wake.

It also left Mammoth with a clean start, said councilmember Rick Wood.

“Fundamentally we have changed the approach, and the approach changed after essentially turning over every stone and finding out things that no prior council in the history of Mammoth Lakes had known—about how municipal finance works, how our government works.

“We’ve seen some things that have been shocking in their scope: money that we thought we had, we didn’t; things we were spending money on that we didn’t know about; things that were shortfalls in revenues that were in some instances anticipated and others that were not.

“It’s been an extraordinary process and it’s been going on for six months.”

The circumstances under which the budget passed were the direst in the town’s short history.

If there is any point of comparison, it might be the “Devils Windstorm” in Reds Meadow, where tens of thousands of trees blew down in one November day of chaos.

This particular windstorm, though, was financial, borne by bad national and state economies and a fickle weather pattern that wiped out much of the 2011-12 ski and snowboard season.

In balancing the town budget, the council blew down nearly $3 million, low-lighting a year of fiscal chaos that as of July 1 will affect nearly every employee, contractor and resident of the town.

In all, the budget contained 40 discrete actions or initiatives to either reduce expenditures or improve revenue. The vast majority of actions were of the former.

Left unresolved was how the town is to pay off the $42 million MLLA judgment. Nor does it figure the plight of Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, a private entity whose financials are not publically released but which laid off 75 employees in a single day last ski season.

Finally, the town deferred $250,000 in road rehabilitation, along with equipment repair and maintenance, ensuring a steady decline in the quality of the road network and a catch-as-catch-can policy toward repair of equipment and the like.

No single town entity escaped the budgeteers’ scythe.

“We’ve compromised on everything,” Wood said. “We’ve cut everything. There’s not anything we haven’t cut.”

Even so, there were bigger losers than others.

Those included Mammoth Lakes personnel across the board, the Police Department, Mammoth Lakes Housing and Mammoth Lakes Tourism, all of which took heavy hits.

Mammoth Lakes Trails and Public Access (MLTPA) lost its annual subsidy of $170,000 and now will turn toward Measure R and Measure U monies (along with donations) if it hopes to sustain itself.

Also taking a heavy hit was the airport, which lost its general manager, Bill Manning; and Public Works, which lost two snow-removal positions along with longtime Maintenance Supervisor Dave Beck.

Elsewhere in the document, the town says it hopes to save $40,600 in lease reductions at Minaret Village Center.

With a 10 percent decrease in salaries across the board, civilian employees will give up a total $466,000. Concessions from the Police Officers Association (union) will yield $546,291. Taken together, the town expects employee concessions to total just over $1 million.

The final piece to the budget puzzle happened two weeks ago, when the budgeteers eliminated Manning’s job, for a total savings of $217,000 (salary, benefits and overtime). In eliminating Beck’s job, along with a fleet maintenance worker and another maintenance worker), the town saved a total of $126,000.

In making the cut at the airport, the town put together a one-time, $68,000 severance package for Manning.

Mammoth Tourism, meanwhile, took a hit of $215,500 with a rather foggy promise from the council to give back $96,150 if Mammoth gets a normal snow year and if revenue from the Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) bounces back.

The opportunities for increased revenues, on the other hand, are few in the budget.

The town has set a goal of collecting $503,700 in additional TOT monies with increased enforcement of the rules—a 13 percent increase. But 8.5 percent of that money would then be plowed back into tourism, transit and housing.

The Police Department, meanwhile, will lose two officers and a hefty (46 percent) reduction in its overtime budget.

The force now totals 16 sworn officers and three civilians. Just five years ago, there were 23 sworn officers and five civilians, handling 7,740 incidents. Last year (2011) the department handled 8,851 incidents, up by 11 percent from five years ago.

Meanwhile, the Whitmore Animal Shelter will lose $65,000 in town money, leaving Mono County holding the doggie bag, as it were.

It was a bloody document, all the way around, and it was the first big-time legislation signed by new Mayor Matthew Lehman, who took over the job from Jo Bacon on Wednesday, moments before the bloodletting began.

Ultimately, it changed the very structure of the town government, for better or for worse.

“We have looked differently, or tried to do things differently,” said Wood, who as the new Mayor ProTem will become Mayor in a year.

“The way we deliver services will be different, because there’s less money; the level of service to be delivered will be different because there’s less money; we identified a couple of years ago some structural problems, and the recommendations have come to pass.

“So what we have now is something that in my judgment is conservative and fiscally prudent and what I’ve been simply amazed at, is how little rancor there has been.

“We haven’t had the budget battles that we’ve had in the past. Hard times probably gets us there. Hard times puts us on the same page.

“It makes it easier for us to go forward.”

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