By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Windsor is arguably in the best fiscal shape of all Sonoma County cities, with a comfortable cushion of reserves in its general fund.
While the town has been able to avoid layoffs and many of the cutbacks experienced by its neighbors, there are still trouble signs.
“In the short run, we could say we are doing well on the budget,” Jim McAdler, director of administrative services, said Wednesday. “The problem we have is a long-term issue.”
Windsor has had to dip into its general fund reserves and projections show the $7.6 million surplus being steadily whittled down in the next few years.
“We will run out at our current spending rate,” McAdler said of the reserves. “We’re looking to reduce that spending rate so the reserves last longer.”
That means employee groups can expect to be asked to make more concessions in the next round of negotiations over pension, health insurance and salary costs.
But Mayor Steve Allen said he basically is “in awe” of the good job Windsor has done with its budget, and how employees have helped keep down expenses.
“It seems everywhere else there are constant revelations of much bigger gaps than projected,” he said of other cities and government agencies.
“Kudos to the town,” said Councilman Sam Salmon, who nevertheless noted Windsor doesn’t provide some of the same services as other cities, such as a municipal swimming pool, and as a result residents may be underserved.
McAdler credits a number of factors, including conservative spending and revenue estimates, and going to the Town Council regularly with updates on the general fund, pegged at $14 million for 2010-11.
He said it also helps that Windsor contracts for police services with the Sheriff’s Department and has a separately funded, independently run fire district. The town spends about 44 percent of its general fund on police services, while most cities with their own police departments spend more than 50 percent, according to McAdler.
Windsor has not escaped belt-tightening the past couple of years. Vacancies in the town’s 105-employee work force have gone unfilled, employees have taken time off without pay during the holidays and numerous part-time positions in the parks and recreation department were eliminated.
Officials dipped into general-fund reserves for $861,000 over two years to help pay for everything from Town Green events to major engineering projects, including new bike lanes, street pavement repair and drainage improvements.
In his semi-annual review, McAdler noted that high unemployment and a weak housing market create a continuing drag on the national and state economy. Economists say “it will take at least five years for the economy to recover to some meaningful strength and normalcy,” he said.
Like other cities, Windsor has seen a drop in property tax revenues, but last year it was not as severe as projected. Windsor officials said that’s because there was an additional one-year lag before assessed property values dropped significantly after the onslaught of the recession, which began in December 2007.
But property tax revenues are expected to drop this fiscal year, which begins July 1. And sales tax revenues also are problematic. They’ve dropped by almost $1.5 million from a high of around $4 million in 2007 and are anticipated to remain flat for the next five years.
“We’re not coming out of this anytime soon. We still need to be in hunkered-down mode,” said Councilwoman Robin Goble said.