COLUMBIA — Presenting his proposal for Columbia’s budget for fiscal year 2011 on Wednesday, City Manager Bill Watkins said he sees a financial storm gathering.
“Frankly, our current budget and what I propose for fiscal year 2011 are based on getting through fiscal year 2012, which I think will be an extremely tight year,” Watkins said at the morning budget address.
If you feel the crunch from utility rate increases, here are some assistance programs that are available:
Central Missouri Community Action, 400 Wilkes Blvd.
Weatherization Assistance Program
Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
AmerenUE Dollar More
If you are an AmerenUE customer, call the customer contact center at 800-552-7583 and follow the voice prompts to find a Dollar More agency nearest you, or call the United Way of Greater Missouri at 800-427-4626.
Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services
Call 874-7355 for an appointment or go to gocolumbiamo.com/CommunityServices/Programs/Social_Service/socserv.php
Salvation Army, 108 W. Ash
Call 442-3229 or walk in before the first of the month for an appointment.
Still, there is a bright spot: City revenues are expected to increase by more than $9 million in fiscal year 2011, a 2.7 percent increase since 2010, Watkins said. More than $8 million of that amount came from utility rate increases.
Utility rate increase
Further monthly utility price increases could cost Columbia residents an estimated average of $8.25 per month, Watkins said.
Watkins acknowledged that sum can be a lot for a family struggling to get by, though he noted that there are assistance programs.
Other than the “unavoidable” utilities increase, Watkins said he is not recommending any fee or tax increases.
“To the best of our ability, we’re limiting ‘pocketbook’ effects on families and businesses,” he said.
Fire and police departments
The Columbia Fire Department may be replacing a pumper and rescue squad, but it may also eliminate eight vacant firefighter positions. This could result in Station Two closing one of its engine companies, according to the budget proposal.
The decision to cut the eight vacant firefighter positions was essentially made last year, Watkins said. Columbia still has the same number of firefighters it has had for the past few years, he said, so he does not expect response times to get longer.
An increase in the fire department's proposed budget resulted from increased pension costs, not service improvements, Watkins said. Increasing pension costs have become problematic for not only the fire department but also for the police and other services, he said.
The Police Department may lose five vehicles used by school resource officers. These officers will instead share vehicles with other police staff. The police budget will shift to get more officers on the street, Watkins said.
Currently, there are more than 100 vehicles for Columbia’s approximately 150 police officers, according to Watkins. The city is planning a 25 percent reduction in the number of vehicles over the next five years.
In spite of the crunch, Columbia residents may see an improvement in public transit service. An expansion in service will begin a month ahead of schedule in order to coincide with the return of students to MU, Watkins said. Bus radios will also be upgraded.
Watkins hopes that service improvements will help increase public transit use. Increased use could increase transit revenues. In turn, increased revenues could help fund more service improvements. Ideally, this would create a positive cycle, Watkins said.
The proposed budget could create new jobs:
- Two positions at the Columbia Wastewater Treatment Plant
- One position as relief water plant operator at the city’s Water Treatment Plant
- One position to maintain the new parking garage at Fifth and Walnut streets
- Two positions to handle growing demands for solid waste services and operation of the landfill’s bioreactor
- Two positions at Columbia Water and Light's recently purchased transload facility
- Two custodial positions
- One building maintenance position
- Three positions for in-house service of the city’s vehicle fleet
In addition to the loss of the eight firefighter positions, the budget could result in the following position cuts:
- One vacant administrative position due to a lower-than-expected number of red-light camera citations
- One public works engineering position due to the expiration of grant funding
Watkins recommended no general or performance-related wage increases for fiscal year 2011. The last across-the-board raise for city employees was $0.25/hour in 2009. Watkins said that he and many other government employees actually saw a decrease in take-home pay last year.
By not increasing wages, Watkins said he was able to propose stable benefits in other areas:
- No increases in employee contributions to health insurance
- Continued funding for all pension programs
- No cuts in other benefits
- A new high-deductible health plan
- Voluntary vision benefits
- Restoration of holiday hours when calculating overtime hours
Watkins said that in formulating the 2011 budget proposal, he planned conservatively and hoped to be “pleasantly surprised” when the real budget exceeded expectations. This has generally been the case during the time he has served as city manager, he said.
“These are cautious times that demand, if not a cautious response, one that is alert to risks and opportunity,” Watkins said during the budget address.
Watkins invited Columbia residents to give him feedback on the budget proposal and to participate in the budget hearings, which will be at the Aug. 16, Sept. 7 and Sept. 20 City Council meetings at 7 p.m. in the City Council chambers.