Ah, the Springtime rituals of the city budget process! The city manager lays her proposed budget on the altar. The councilmembers cut it open and inspect it’s entrails, which they try to rearrange and graft incongruous items onto as the city manager ceremoniously grinds her teeth. Meanwhile, a procession of department heads, staff, and grantees files past, holding aloft their Little Nells while intoning the sacred appeals that, they hope, will preserve their little bit of entrails.
Unlike most other spring festivals, this one goes on for weeks and nobody has any fun. Especially this year. In fact, while past budget work sessions were like ritual combat in which there was much posturing, but no actual blow struck, this time the sword edges have been sharpened.
As reported last week, the city manager proposed cutting jobs to balance the budget. City revenues have been reduced due to state and county cutbacks, due in turn to the recession. The budget would eliminate 4 full time and 4 part-time positions, and reduce two full time positions to part time. This is just a proposal, mind you. The council will decide whether or not to make the cuts after the budget work sessions.
Stay the Ax!
City employees are not going to take these threatened cuts meekly, as they made plain to the city council at the April 12 meeting .
Librarian David Burbank laid it on thick on behalf of a part-time book-shelver whose job would be eliminated under the proposed budget. He described the employee to the city council as a lifelong city resident who only earns $12,000 a year. The work she does would now have to be taken over by other staff, increasing their workload. The extra work she does: creating displays, providing and caring for the children’s room fish tank, would go undone, and would be harder to take over.
Burbank asserted that cutting jobs was unnecessary because there are other ways to fill the budget deficit. Councilmembers pricked up their ears when he told them that while the city pays half the health care insurance costs of wage-earning employees, it pays 100 percent of management employees’. Perhaps, Burbank suggested, if management also paid half their insurance costs it would save the city enough money to save the book shelver’s job.
The council later asked the city manager about Burbank’s assertion, and she said that management positions do get 100% of their healthcare insurance paid for. However, she said, that is to compensate for them being on a fixed salary. They are unable, as wage earners are, to get overtime pay.
Burbank went on to suggest the city dip into its $6 – 8 million Strategic Reserve for contingencies. He said the economic recession was just such a contingency to use that fund.
Burbank also objected to the city manager’s plan not to give any raises next year. The “pay for performance” system that earns raises is already stacked in favor of management, he said. The best shot city wage earners have had to gain by that system was the Public Works Department’s outstanding performance during this winter’s big snow storm. But, since the city manager proposes no wage increases, they will lose the opportunity. He was unhappy that there would be no cost of living increase, as well.
Other speakers went to the podium to address the city council. The mother of a full-time employee cut to part-time appealed for her daughter’s job. A half-dozen or so city employees, many of them Public Works Dept. workers in AFSCME t-shirts (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) complained about the lack of raises this year. There were several city employees in the room to support this sentiment.
One worker took a more empathetic approach. She thanked the council for dealing with such a difficult financial situation. She asked “don’t forget the people who are easy to make invisible.”
Mayor Bruce Williams thanked them all for coming forward. “We appreciate what you do,” he said, and “I wish we could do more.”
The city council then dove into the first budget work session of the year. They discussed a selection of budget items and subjects: general government, communications, non-departmental, debt service, and facility hour changes.
The council said that they would like to see the expenses in more detail – their perennial request. For instance, in the case of general government, which covers several departments, the budget was broken down into 9 categories, including personnel-related expenditures (salaries, wages, benefits). The council wanted those categories broken down even further. The city manager said she would provide more details.
Proposed changes to facility hours include closing the community center an hour earlier (9 PM) Monday-Thursday, and closing it on Sundays. The city’s recreation center would close a half-hour earlier (9 PM) weekdays. The Computer Learning Center would start 2 hours later (2 PM), and would be closed Sundays
Mayor Wiliams was concerned that closing the community center at 9 PM would adversely impact community meetings which usually start at 7:30 PM.
Councilmember Terry Seamens said he was “uncomfortable” with the plan, and said he would be proposing alternative solutions for saving revenues. Councilmember Josh Wright, who said he shared Seamens’ concerns asked what the cost-savings would be if the closures were enacted. That figure would help the council develop alternatives, he said. Councilmember Dan Robinson and the mayor also expressed concerns with how the early closure would affect the use of the soon-to-be-finished auditorium.
The issue can be discussed again, said the city manager, when the work sessions turn to the library and recreation department budgets.
Debt Ins and Outs
Debt service includes payments on bonds for the Public Works Department renovations and for street improvements. The city manager noted that this year the city made the final payment on a $380,000 capital lease for police radio equipment. The proposed debt service budget is $1,244,463.
Dept. Ins and Outs
Non-departmental city expenses include workers compensation insurance, unemployment claims, liability, auto, and other insurance, and small grants to non-governmental groups such as Independence Day parade committee and the Crossroads farmers market. The proposed non-departmental budget is 1,043,598.
A representative of Historic Takoma addressed the council, hopeful for “one last grant” to finish renovation of that non-governmental organization’s storefront in Takoma Junction.
Do It Yourself
Dear Readers, you can review the budget yourself. It is posted on the city web site.