The Belton City Council spent last Saturday morning and a chunk of their afternoon going line by line through several areas of the city’s proposed budget for 2013.
The four-hour work session on Feb. 23, one of several special meetings that the city has held in recent weeks, included budget presentations for the city’s street, wastewater, water and golf course funds.
On Feb. 5, the city proposed a budget full of trimmings due to an unexpected drop in the sales tax and building and development program revenues, City Manager Ron Trivitt said.
The city, while not quite in the red yet, is looking to cut approximately $1 million in all from the general fund due to an ordinance that requires the Belton council to maintain a 15 percent reserve fund.
Among the cuts, city staff have initialized a budget proposal for the police department to cut $276,000 and for the fire department to cut $311,000 from their operations. The cuts could result in eliminating as many as eight positions from each department. Trivitt said about 70 percent of the city’s budget covers pay and benefits for city employees, and that the city’s fire and police services make up about two-thirds of the budget.
“It’s difficult to make any cuts as substantial as we’re looking at without involving the police and fire,” he said.
Councilmen had the opportunity during Saturday’s meeting to hear again directly from Police Chief James Person and Fire Chief Steven Holle about where they would make cuts, if necessary.
“We have all looked at our line items and made cuts,” Person said. “We cannot afford to lose six entry-level police officers.”
Should the police force have to make cuts, along with not filling two open positions, Person said he would look at cutting school resource officers and some investigative details from the budget.
Currently, the salaries of resource officers are paid through a 50 percent cost share split agreement with the Belton School District.
Person said he has asked the district Superintendent to look at increasing their contribution to 75 percent of the salaries since the officers work at the schools during nine of the 12 months out of the year, which would allow the police to save approximately $112,500 annually.
Due to decreased revenues in the past year, the city anticipates to end the 2012 budget year with about a 10.9 percent reserve balance.
“There’s a realistic world out there and you can set a figure at 15 percent and never achieve it because in the real world the taxes aren’t there, the income isn’t there to do that,” Ward 3 Councilman Everett Loughridge said. “You have a frustration level by making all kind of cuts across the board to achieve a 15 percent, then at the end of this time next year, we’re somewhere near 11 or 12 percent. I think you have to take in the realities of the history.”
Loughridge said there was a time in Belton had the heyday of sales taxes, and it may be that the reality of 15 percent is going to be a hard number to achieve again if the economy doesn’t turn around.
As part of the discussions, Ward 2 Councilman Justin Neff proposed that the city look at lowering the city’s reserve target mark as much as 12 percent.
“I think that the first thing you need to do when you’re in a whole is to quit digging, and I think getting back to 15 percent not realistic in one fiscal year,” Neff said. “I’ve gone through the numbers and I think getting to a 12 percent target this year is about where we need to focus and then have a recovery plan over the next several years to build that back.”
Finance Director Sheila Ernzen stressed the importance of having a 15 percent reserve balance.
“I think everyone knows why we have a reserve. It’s in case of an emergency or a disaster,” she said. “It also helps us prepare and wait for our property tax revenue to come in the winter so we don’t have to borrow money and take out tax anticipation notes. That reserve helps make sure that we have money to make it through, and also in case of an emergency.”
Ernzen said the reserve also exists to help the city weather the storm during slow economic times, such as now.
Should the council decide to set their reserve percentage below 15 percent, Ernzen also said that the city’s bond capacity wouldn’t be affected, but could possibly affect bond ratings.
But several councilmen don’t want to cut public safety to get there.
“You’re cutting, cutting, cutting,” Loughridge said. “At some point you get into the services that our citizens expect. They pay taxes and they want services. When someone has a heart attack, they want the fire department there. When there is somebody’s house being threatened, they want the police there. They also want good streets. This is a snowball effect…to get to 15 percent there are Draconian cuts that are going to have to made in personnel.”
The city has until late March to approve a budget.