City Drafts Budget Guidelines

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City officials took another tiny step toward filling a gaping budget hole last week by drafting guidelines for City Manager James Hartmann to follow during the budget process. Its well known that the budgets reformation will cut city services, but it could eventually raise property taxes too, according to the draft.

While many residents are disappointed with the list of proposed cuts to balance the $10.5 million deficit of the current budget, officials are predicting an even larger gap at least $35 million by this time next year.

Deciding which services will stay and which services will subside is the City Councils and city managers main goal these days. A divisive and daunting list that has some residents disappointed, others angered and many directly affected, will only get longer in subsequent budget years.

Nothing is off the table in an environment like this, Hartmann said. And I think wed be hard pressed to say what exactly this is going to look like in February when the city manager will propose the fiscal year 2010 budget to the mayor and City Council.

The draft outlines priorities and safeguards for the manager to keep in mind during the budget planning process and capital improvement program planning process. According to the guidelines, one of the characteristics of the budget and CIP includes planning for an estimated 5-cent increase of the real estate tax rate in order to provide for the average homeowner to pay the same amount of real estate tax paid in 2008. The 5-cent figure is a temporary placeholder to help the budget staff project the upcoming years figures.

By no means can folks conclude that this is something that will happen, Mayor Bill Euille said. Based on what we do know right now, at this moment, at least this helps to sharpen the shortfall.

The document, steered by Councilmen Rob Krupicka and Justin Wilson, deters any new spending unless in the name of maintaining infrastructure, the new Public Safety Center, contractual obligations or previously unallocated funds already within the capital improvement plan.

A couple of heavily discussed issues included proposals that would eliminate the resource police officer stationed at Minnie Howard Ninth Grade Center and eliminate gridlock officers who direct traffic in highly congested areas like Duke Street near Taylor Run Parkway and Telegraph Road. Citizens have expressed dismay to officials via public hearings and emails.

There are a lot of people who have emailed us and said, Gosh, dont be cutting all this stuff; just raise taxes, Wilson said. And the reality is, even if we wanted to raise taxes to cover this gap, we just really couldnt. Wilson said the community could not withstand that type of increase required to cover the gap. On the other side, the city cannot cut its way out either, despite requests from residents to reduce the governments size. Wed be laying off police officers, firefighters; its not something the community would accept, Wilson said.

The conclusion is a mixture of both taxing and cuts. According to the memo, officials fully expect that there will be substantial service reductions in the proposed budget and it will likely contain significant reductions in city workforce.

The city already has vacancies that are being filled with current employees who take on extra responsibility. Meanwhile, the citys employee compensation philosophy is being audited as well. The city commissioned a study by consultant company Watson Wyatt to help adopt new revisions to the philosophy, keeping employee compensation and benefits competitive while efficient. The Council encouraged the city manager to identify creative forms of compensation to reward employees, including additional vacation accrual, reduced evening meetings and opportunities to work from home in the guidelines.

I think the reality right now is that we have a compensation philosophy that were not necessarily adhering to, Wilson said. And our employees are very concerned about that, rightly so. Thats something the employees have long wanted revisions on.

Another cut Wilson said he received ample emails from the Human Services division on is a cut in services relating to emergency housing for the homeless. The city continues to invest it its tourism and economic organizations in reaction to the poor economy, but victims of this same economy could end up losing their homes due to foreclosures or joblessness. Officials reiterated how tough the decisions are, and that these are just the first cuts.

Everything that we cut from here on out has a constituency and in a lot of cases a very vocal and involved constituency, Wilson said. These are very difficult times. These are just really very painful cuts and in some cases the cuts that are the most painful are the ones that dont have so much speaking for them.

Councils discussion about the cuts last week represented, as Mayor Euille put it, the last crack of the bat on a subject that has marinated since mid October. Council had not yet met to adopt the guidelines and move forward with the cuts at press time but is expected to do so Tuesday at its legislative meeting.

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