Eureka City Councilman Frank Jäger doesn't sugarcoat it: The city's budget situation ain't pretty. Blame can be spread in a number of directions, though the truth of the matter is that, as with the unholy messes in the state and national budgets, there's one overriding culprit: It's the stupid economy. Sales tax revenues have been down in Eureka, and dammit, they're not supposed to go down. They're supposed to go up indefinitely, just like the housing market. In fact, the city's general fund depends on that growth. But for the 2008-2009 fiscal year, sales tax revenues are projected to drop by more than $1 million.
Two measures approved by voters in November may help prevent an outright catastrophe. Measure D will increase the city's sales tax by a quarter percent while Measure E will boost the Transient Occupancy Tax (paid by visitors staying in motels) to 10 percent. Both will bring in much-needed revenue. Still, when you factor in flat property tax revenues and staffing cost increases of about $1.5 million, the city suddenly finds itself facing an anticipated budget deficit of $2.8 million. Everyone agrees that cuts have to be made, but suggestions that the city can no longer afford the $660,000 it takes to run the Sequoia Park Zoo have many county residents up in arms.
Put simply, Eureka is in a tough spot, and frankly, Jäger doesn't like it. "Boy," he said on the phone Monday, "it's a tough time to come on the Council, I'll tell ya. It's not gonna be a pretty picture." He sighed. "These are gonna be tough decisions."
Eureka City Manager David Tyson hosted a community forum Monday night, hoping to harness the collective brainpower of area residents to help the Council make those tough decisions. Standing under the sunbeam-patterned ceiling beams at Eureka's Wharfinger building, Tyson presented a series of glowing slides -- pie charts, financial tables, bar and line graphs explaining how the general fund works, where it comes from, what it does and why it can no longer do all those things. Fifty or so community members, including Councilmembers Linda Atkins, Jeff Leonard and Larry Glass, watched the presentation as the setting sun filtered through the clouds outside the windows, casting a silvery glow on the boat masts oscillating slowly in the harbor.
The goal of the forum, Tyson told the Journal Monday morning, was to educate both sides -- that is, for the city to inform the public about the budget process and for the public to inform city officials about their priorities, which Jäger, for one, appreciates. "You know, we're just five people who are gonna make a decision, [while] twenty or thirty thousand are gonna be affected," he said. "The more we hear from them the better."
The community's majority message thus far has been loud and clear: Cut whatever you must, be it the parks and recreation program, the Clarke Museum, street sweeping, whatever; just keep your damned hands away from our zoo. "I really haven't gotten any calls regarding anything else," Jäger said. Councilman Mike Jones has had it almost as bad -- 98 percent of his calls have been zoo-related, he said Monday. It's a lot of hubbub over something that accounts for less than three percent of the general fund, Jones said, but that doesn't diminish the passion of zoo supporters. "I think the people who are concerned about the other issues like fire and police feel safe knowing that's a council priority," Jones said.
Such has not been the case with regards to the zoo since May of last year, when Glass first called attention to the expense of maintaining the 100-year-old facility. The zoo began charging admission fees in August, but it's still losing money, and as the city's budget situation has worsened, scrutiny of the facility has persisted. Despite Tyson's call for ideas and solutions rather than complaints, many attendees simply couldn't hold back their emotional defense of the local home for white-handed gibbons, cotton-topped tamarins, Western pond turtles -- and, above all, the zoo's significance to our children.
"Nobody speaks for the kids," said Eureka resident Rex Bohn. "That zoo's got a special magic. Go there on a Sunday. Watch how many kids under 10 have their week made by going to that zoo." A woman who came with her daughter broke into tears while speaking. "To just do away with it -- that's wrong," she whimpered. "I'm sorry. There has to be another way."
Not everyone agreed. Sylvia Scott of Eureka said she got a sense of the city's priorities while going door-to-door last year, drumming up support for Measures D and E, and the number one concern was public safety. So if it's a case of either/or, she said, the zoo must go. "This zoo can be operated, but not by the people of Eureka," Scott said. "Those of you who want the zoo open, guess what. Step up. Put your money where your mouth is." It's time for McKinleyville, Arcata, Ferndale -- all our area towns -- to shoulder some of the burden, Scott asserted.
Several members of the Sequoia Park Zoo Foundation, a nonprofit group that provides the zoo with financial support, advocated just that -- establishing a county-wide assessment district so that the expense doesn't fall entirely on Eureka's shoulders. Foundation Vice President Chuck Dominick said such a shift could take time, however. "What really needs to occur now," he said, "is a serious dialog about an alternate plan [and] alternate funding models." He suggested the zoo's admission fees will show greater results during the summer tourist season and he begged for people -- presumably members of the City Council -- to have patience. "Please, please give this some time to unfold."
Scattered amongst these entreaties were a few other money-saving ideas. The woman who told other towns to put up or shut up, for example, also suggested eliminating the city's street sweeper in favor of an ordinance requiring citizens to sweep their own stoops. She also proposed making the Eureka Redevelopment Agency part of the city's building department. Dick Twiddy, a member of the city's finance advisory committee, said the city should simply stop funding parks operations, the marina, the Recreation Division and the zoo. "My suggestion: Privatize," said Twiddy. "That's the way it's done. Private people do things better than government does them." Yet another person suggested eliminating Eureka's separate mayoral position in favor of Arcata's model of electing the mayor from the city council on a rotating basis.
Glass watched the meeting from the back of the room, leaning casually against the door jamb. Afterwards, he told Rex Bohn that he's been taking heat on the zoo question. "I've gotten e-mails up the wazoo," he said, "everybody blaming me for bringing it up. But we've got to raise the issue." He told the Journal that it's a problem with a simple solution: The zoo needs to be funded county-wide. He was also intrigued by the idea of consolidating community development into another department and suggested putting the alternative mayoral process to the voters. "Those were positive suggestions," Glass said.
Inevitably, though, there will have to be layoffs. Glass and Tyson agree on that point. "Whether that will happen immediately -- probably not," Tyson said. "We'll try to give people as much notice as possible." The trick for the Council, he said, will be figuring out what they can eliminate from the budget without damaging the city's essence. And for many people, the zoo is an essential part of Eureka. "It's important for the Council to try to maintain the culture of our community through this budget process," Tyson said. "That includes things like quality policing, fire, parks, things like the zoo." There it was. He said it. Of course, the actual decision of whether -- or at least how -- to keep the zoo funded will fall to the City Council.
Tyson is fielding penny-pinching suggestions from the public through Monday, and the relevant comments will be presented at Eureka City Council's first budget meeting on Tuesday, March 31. The city manager can be reached at 441-4144, and Councilmembers are encouraging the public to stay involved in the budgeting process. Just ask Jäger -- they'll take all the help they can get.