Budget talks continue as City waits on property tax numbers

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By A.C. Hall

White Settlement City Council budget workshops continue to take place at City Hall several times a week as the council looks to lock down the fiscal year 2014-2015 budget.  The proposed budget contains $9.5 million in total expenditures, with an estimated $8.9 million in total revenues.  That leaves a $600,000 deficit.  

Exact property tax numbers are not yet available, but should be in this week.  Once on hand, City Manager Linda Ryan will have a better idea of where the budget stands.  A big increase in property values could cover the proposed budget’s deficit and possibly free up more money to be used, while a small increase or even a decrease could mean the council is in for more work as they have to cut the budget back or find another way to cover the deficit.

“I’m praying the tax numbers come in good,” Ryan said.

As council members discussed their thoughts on where the numbers might fall, several seemed to agree that a small increase will come through but not a large one.

“You’re probably looking at a three percent increase or so,” council member Danny Anderson said.

Ryan reminded the council that she keeps a close eye on where revenues are and adjusts spending accordingly.

“Every year no matter what we’re budgeting, we haven’t spent more than we’ve brought in,” Ryan said.

With the overall scope of the budget still fuzzy thanks to the absence of concrete tax numbers, council continued working through individual items.  One such item was the White Settlement Fire Department, and the status of Fire Chief Brian Thompson.

The position of Fire Chief is chosen by the volunteer association at the fire department, but current chief Thompson also holds a paid part time position as the city’s Fire Administrator.  Ryan’s suggestion of moving that to a full time position was met with some resistance last week, but as it was brought up again some council members seemed in favor.

“I think it’s a good idea,” council member Steve Ott said.

The move would push the position to around $50,000 and would make Thompson eligible for insurance and retirement benefits, something he currently doesn’t have.

Even if Thompson was going to stay part time, council members were in favor of granting him insurance in the upcoming budget.  However, as talks continued at a later workshop, the council began talking about the increase once more.

“I think we need to pay him what he’s worth,” Ryan said of Thompson.

Mayor Jerry Burns spoke about giving Thompson the increased pay, but to make it a stipend based on his high level of credentials instead of considering it a move to a full time position.

Some of the issues surrounding having a paid position for the chief were discussed, as it’s always possible that the chief could eventually be voted out by the volunteer association.  This would mean that Thompson would likely lose his Fire Administrator position, since he would no longer be chief.  It also called into question if the next chief would be eligible to also be a fire administrator.

“Brian is uniquely qualified,” Ryan said, explaining that he has his own business and thus has a lot of free hours to spend at the fire station.

The possibility of changing how fire chiefs are chosen was briefly mentioned, but few in the workshop seemed to think that was even possible.

“The association picks the chief, that part’s not gonna change,” Mayor Burns said.

After much discussion, the consensus of the council was to give Thompson the increase in salary and establish some guidelines as to who can be Fire Administrator.  These guidelines would be firstly that someone had to be the current Fire Chief, had to spend at least thirty two hours a week at the station, and they also had to hold administrator certifications.  These are still preliminary decisions as council continues to wait for the property tax numbers to come in, but for now it appears that the salary increase and benefits for Thompson are penciled into the budget.

The status of a fire department request for a $750,000 new ladder truck is still up in the air.  Thompson was on hand to speak about the request, saying their current ladder truck is 26 years old.  According to National Fire Protection Association suggestions, a truck that is older than 25 years should only be used as a reserve vehicle.

When asked how often the truck is used, Thompson was ready with an answer.

“It rolls on every structure fire,” Thompson said.

The inability to reach taller buildings, the difficulty of getting replacement parts, and the cost of having to do repairs to the lift pistons on the ladder were all reasons given by Thompson for replacing the truck.

None of the council members appeared ready to add $750,000 into the budget for the truck, but the possibility of other financing opportunities were discussed.  Council directed Thompson to look into things like lease to own or financing options for them to consider.

The possibility of using tax notes to fund some items has been floating around since council took the first action to approve a $3.4 million tax note at their July 9 meeting.  Anderson continued to speak about his stance that as much of that as possible should be used on upgrading and repairing the city’s infrastructure.  He voiced his belief that growth and businesses are coming to the city, but stressed the need to take steps to get ready for that growth by focusing on infrastructure.

“We need to make sure that when they get here we don’t have any issues,” Anderson said.

When discussing $25,000 in the City Manager’s budget, Anderson voiced his belief as to where that money should be spent.

“You need a secretary,” Anderson told City Manager Linda Ryan.

In recent years there has just been one City Secretary, but it was stated that the current City Secretary is doing what has historically been a two person job.  That didn’t convince Ryan that another secretary was needed.

“There are other places in this city where this money is needed more,” Ryan said.

Some of her suggestions were to use it to bring in help in the finance or code departments.  She also spoke about the fact that she will be retiring at some point, and whatever City Manager comes in next will almost certainly want an Assistant City Manager, a position Ryan has gone without for many years.

There were several ideas voiced as to what to do with the $25,000, from removing it from the budget completely to adding it to the City Manager reserves that can be used in an emergency.

The possibility of doing away with laptops for the council members and instead providing them with tablet computers was discussed at length.  This would allow the city to cut back on the high annual fees for wireless internet air cards for the laptops, and could also save money by helping to use less paper.  The ability for council to receive their meeting packets and large documents such as the budget on their tablets instead of printing all of that was hailed as a possible big money saver, but only if the council members actively used the tablets.

“It won’t save you money if you don’t use it,” Economic Development Director Jim Ryan said.

Council received a demonstration of a tablet and appeared in favor of the move.  The proposed plan was to use available funds in the current budget to purchase tablets for the council, with the possibility of providing them to more department heads and paper intensive boards in the future discussed.

$76,000 in the budget to replace air conditioning units at city hall and the fire station was also mentioned, as the current units are thirteen years old.  It was stated that they’re only supposed to last ten years.

Council also questioned Senior Center manager Lydia Neece about a budget request to do repairs and upgrades to the two kitchens in the senior’s center.  Neece was asking for $15,000 for the main kitchen and $7,000 for the kitchen in the south of the building.  There’s currently no stove or dishwasher in the main kitchen, and Neece also said the counters were in bad shape.  The meals prepared for seniors in the kitchen are done using warmers.

Council suggested focusing only on the main kitchen, but seemed doubtful as to how much $15,000 was going to cover.

“That amount won’t even touch it,” Mayor Burns said.

A decision was made to remove the $7,000 for the south kitchen, and roll that into the main kitchen budgeted amount, making it $22,000.  Council then chose to add another $3,000 to that amount, putting it at $25,000 budgeted towards upgrading and repairing the main kitchen.  The need to get a clearer idea as to the scope of the work was brought up.

“I don’t have a problem spending the money, I’d just like a better idea of what we’re getting,” Council member Elzie Clements said.

A budget item of $18,000 for painting the interior of the library was also discussed.  The interior of the library hasn’t been updated since 1988, and the council appeared to be won over and was ready to agree to this item when they heard that 80,000 people used the library last year.

However, the need of other things at the library could force some hard choices.  A highly qualified employee has librarian credentials but isn’t making the proper salary, so council was asked to consider raising that salary.  There’s also a need for new shelving to hold DVDs, as well as new software and licenses.

Acknowledging that it wouldn’t be a popular idea, Clements voiced the possibility that there may soon be a need to charge citizens to use the library.

“It’s becoming a financial burden,” Clements said.  “Sometimes cities have to charge for services.”

The possibility of adding a small fee for citizens to receive a library card was mentioned, but discussions on the matter were brief with no decisions being made.

Budget workshops will continue throughout this week, and with solid property tax numbers due in any day the city will soon have a clear idea of what can stay and what must go from the proposed budget.

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