COLUMBIA — The proposed city budget for 2010 is down from the previous year for the first time since the mid-1980s, Bill Watkins said during a scheduled news conference Thursday. If passed by City Council, spending will be 3 percent lower than the 2009 fiscal year.
“This is not a dramatic, showy gesture,” Watkins said. “That’s not my style.”
Watkins said his proposed budget would close a nearly $2 million budget gap by focusing on reductions in personnel and program spending, the remainder of a $4 million gap between revenue and spending in fiscal year 2009.
Both Fourth Ward Councilman Jerry Wade and Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala agreed the budget is neither extravagant nor elaborate.
“We have a conservative, thoughtful document to work from, and my goal is to maintain city services with the consistency of past years,” Wade said.
Skala said that while that some of the deliberations may be difficult, he thinks everyone is on the same page.
“We’ll have to run a lean machine to get ready for the next year or two,” Skala said. “There are a lot of suggestions in the budget that make a great deal of sense.”
The total for the proposed budget is about $403 million, down from about $415 million last year. Projected city revenue is expected to be down 2.9 percent from this fiscal year.
During his presentation of the budget, Watkins described the city’s financial situation as “sound but not comfortable,” echoing the sentiments from his state of the city address in June.
He said adjustments to the city budget began in 2008 when sales tax revenue “began to weaken.” Watkins said that early in the 2009 fiscal year the three-year budget forecast for the city was revised to include more “immediate cost-savings.”
“What I’m proposing for the upcoming fiscal year is only possible because of what we’ve done in fiscal year 2009,” Watkins said.
Sales tax revenue is projected to remain static during the upcoming fiscal year. In fiscal year 2009, the decrease in sales tax revenues slowed from 4 percent to 3 percent, leading Watkins and Finance Director Lori Fleming to anticipate sales taxes will flatten out over the course of the year.
“We are hoping that the economic downtown will level out this year,” Fleming said.
Under the proposed budget, spending in the general government fund, which operates basic city services such as fire protection, police and parks, would be down 14.6 percent. Enterprise fund spending, which includes the city utilities and other city services funded by user fees, would be up by 3 percent. The enterprise spending increase is because of equipment purchases, infrastructure projects and city power purchases. The Solid Waste and Electric Utilities divisions would make the largest equipment purchases.
The council will hear public comment on the Capital Plan during a hearing at its meeting on Monday.
Watkins outlined a three-part path in which he hopes to “sustain the organization and community.” Watkins said he hopes to “sustain core services” with efficient business planning, reducing less critical tasks and moving resources to support more important undertakings. He would “sustain the city workforce” by focusing on the current city employees and looking for savings in employee compensation.
Although citizens will pay no new taxes, they will experience a projected monthly increase of $8.70 in their utility bills during 2010. Watkins said this increase is in line with the average monthly increase rates that have been set over the past three years.
“Columbia’s rates remain competitive with those of publicly owned and member-owned and investor-owned providers in other parts of Missouri,” Watkins said.
Some savings during 2009 came from lower fuel costs after the price of gas dropped late in 2008. This year, the city manager's budget allots $3 per gallon for gasoline. Fleming also said savings have come in employment — they city hasn't brought in many new employees, and there are only 2.5 net new positions being created within the next year.
“We’re holding positions vacant as long as possible when there is turnover,” Fleming said.
The budget plans for a proposed increase of $798,000 in fee and user charges. These are fairly widespread and include new fees within the Health Department and an annexation fee in the Planning Department.
The Parks and Recreation general fund operations will, among other things, reduce the number of youths in the CARE program to 185 participants from 200.
The city is also working to reduce the number of vehicles used, and because of the economic constraints put on the budget, the city would not be following the replacement schedule for vehicles. The Police Department would not replace detective cars in 2010, eliminate two community service aide vehicles and continue to eliminate take-home cars for detectives.
Although there is a 1 percent increase in personnel services, city employees will not get a pay increase as they did in 2009.
“This year we’ve reached the point where fiscal conditions demand tougher decisions on employee issues,” Watkins said.
Many of the city's "temporary" jobs would be eliminated.
“They do very important work, but I’m recommending reducing this spending line by $470,000, citywide next year,” Watkins said.
Even though the city is seeing tremendous cuts and changes in the budget, there are two notable additions: the creation of a neighborhood services unit and a sustainability office.
The next steps on the budget will be in council work sessions and public hearings through September.
"(The budget) means some difficult cuts,” Skala said. “That’s the discussion the city council has to have in context of advice from the city manager and public input — what their priorities are. After all, they pay the taxes.”
Wade said that while discussions for this budget continue, future years will be in the minds of the council members.
“We need to make sure we make budget decisions this year to allow us to focus on consistent services and quality services next year,” Wade said. “You can’t do a budget one year at a time.”