Both cities have had to make these cuts due to shrinking budgets and a rough national economy. Now it's Columbia's turn to do some trimming.
“I get sleepless nights when I Google how other cities are doing it,” Mayor Bob McDavid said. “What we have to do is avoid becoming some of these cities that have had to cut their general fund.”
City officials discussed City Manager Bill Watkins’ proposed budget for fiscal year 2011 at a workshop Saturday morning at City Hall. The goal of the meeting was to create a list of proposed amendments to the budget.
“It’s up to us to cut as much of this budget as we can,” McDavid said. “Anything that will not affect the service of the city is on the chopping block.”
Reduce general reserve fund
Watkins said it’s ideal to have about 16 percent of general funds in a reserve fund. The city has about $6 million in excess in its reserves. Because expenditures in the proposed budget are about $2.9 million more than projected revenue, Watkins proposed to take out $2.9 million from the reserve fund to finance them.
Fire Chief William Markgraf was not able to attend Saturday’s budget workshop, but he submitted a letter addressing his concerns. The proposed budget cuts eight vacant firefighter positions.
“No fire chief that I know would willingly and knowingly turn down the opportunity for additional personnel,” Markgraf said in the letter. “However, no fire chief that I know would accept additional personnel knowing that within a year some of the new hires would have to be laid off.”
Markgraf asked for the Fire Department to be allowed to fill four of the existing vacancies. He also wants to purchase a two-person vehicle to keep Fire Station No. 2 as a two-company station. The vehicle would cost approximately $350,000.
“We have a major structural problem in our budget: the retirement structure,” McDavid said.
City employee pensions are tied to the stock market, which has been flat year after year, McDavid said. Because the city is not receiving dividends, it has to write checks out of the general fund to pay for pensions.
The city paid $4.2 million for pensions this year and $3.6 million last year, McDavid said.
“It will cost more next year,” McDavid said. “It’s a national problem, and we have to get ahead of it.”
The proposed budget eliminates five vehicles for school resource officers, forcing them to share vehicles with the rest of the police force. The budget also reduces supply expenditures.
Police Chief Ken Burton asked for four to six additional traffic officers. City Finance Director Lori Fleming said adding an officer costs about $77,500, including the cost of a weapon and a vehicle. One vehicle is purchased for every two officers.
The proposed budget expands bus routes and upgrades bus radios. Watkins also proposed funds for a vehicle location system and suggested replacing 10 buses and two para-transit vans.
Watkins’ budget also recommended funds to renovate a restroom at the Columbia Regional Airport and to purchase snow removal equipment for the airport.
Watkins said transportation and airport issues would begin to dip into the general fund starting in 2012 unless changes occur.
“We’re making progress,” Watkins said. “We identified the problem, but the one that scares me most is the airport.”
Watkins said the next step for the airport would be to add another airline to go to another hub, but that would take startup money that’s not in the budget.
“It’s an area that previous administrations didn’t put any money into,” Watkins said. “It’s one of those things you got to do.”
Watkins said the city is about $2 million short to completely repair its streets. The city will continue filling holes and making minor repairs, he said, instead of major overhauls.
The city is also working to fix and replace city street signs that have been vandalized or stolen, but Watkins said the first priority is to make sure safety signs, such as stop signs, are in working order.
Citizens Police Review Board
McDavid said he would not recommend increasing the Citizens Police Review Board budget. The proposed 2011 budget takes it to $23,200 from $4,600, a more than 500 percent increase.
McDavid called the board a “mid-level bureaucracy” and said the city doesn’t “have money to spend on bureaucracy at this point.”
Planning and Zoning
McDavid said he would recommend retaining the current Planning and Zoning Commission budget, rather than increasing it to $7,900 from $5,053.
Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe was concerned that the commission has several projects it’s working on, so it might need increased funds.
Watkins said he would look into the commissions’ funding needs.
Parks and Recreation
Last year, the Parks and Recreation Department saw cuts to personnel, services and supplies. Watkins said he’s been hearing complaints about the cleanliness and lack of mowing in parks, but the proposed budget does not take that into account.
McDavid advocated health savings accounts for city employees. The accounts incorporate a higher health insurance deductible, McDavid said.
“(Health savings accounts) will put more money in tax-deferred accounts,” McDavid said. “For those who maintain reasonable health, they will carry with them a substantial balance.”
Watkins plans to explain to the council different health insurance options for the city in October.
Travel and training
Third Ward Councilman Gary Kespohl proposed cutting travel and training by 50 percent citywide, a $250,000 decrease.
Hoppe later mentioned that training keeps worker compensation claims down.
Kespohl brought up that he would like to see the City Council’s food budget cut.
Hoppe agreed: “I can bring my own food.”
Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser said she would be concerned that if something such as the food budget were cut, it would never be re-established. Nauser also said it might limit the type of person who could be on the council.
City employee parking
Hoppe proposed giving city employees incentives to walk, bike or take public transportation to work, in exchange for reducing or eliminating paid parking for city employees. City employees already can obtain free bus passes, Fleming said.
Hoppe questioned why approximately $100,000 is spent on uniforms for some city employees.
Watkins explained some uniforms are necessary for certain jobs, such as police and firefighters.
“You don’t want to go home in the same clothes that you worked in,” Watkins said, referring to sewer utility workers.
The City Council budgets $100,000 for contingency funds each year.
“We have never dipped into that $100,000 contingency,” McDavid said. “I propose we get rid of it since we have had it for 15 years and not used it.”
Fleming said the fund is there in case the city needs it, so it should remain in the budget.
The public is invited
Councilman Paul Sturtz did not attend Saturday’s budget workshop, and Nauser left early.
“We have a tough job ahead of us here unless there’s a substantial climb in the national economy,” McDavid said.
City officials will further discuss these and other possible amendments to the proposed budget at 6 p.m. Monday at City Hall, 701 E. Broadway, in conference rooms 1A and 1B.