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Department heads questioned during city budget review

By Staff | Aug 9, 2017

City Council and the Budget Review Committee had the opportunity in a joint meeting Tuesday at City Hall to ask questions of city administrators and department heads regarding Fiscal Year 2018 operating budget figures.

City Manager John Szerlag and Finance Director Vicky Bateman delivered an overview before turning the mic over to a representative from Stantec (formerly Burton & Associates) to demonstrate in real time the effect on the budget by making “what if” changes as requested by council members to the millage rate, Fire Service Assessment and Public Service Tax rates, or any other scenarios. The cash flow projection model developed by the firm is capable of making projections out as far as 10 years. The city has used the model projections each of the last four years in calculating its rolling three-year budget.

No votes were taken at the informal workshop session that lasted four hours. The joint meeting reconvenes at 1 p.m. Thursday in Council Chambers.

Highlights of the proposed budget overall for 2018 set the budget at $839,125,862 before any changes or cuts are made during the budget approval process in the coming weeks and concludes with two final public hearings to adopt the budget on Sept. 7 and Sept. 25. The new budget cycle goes into effect on Oct. 1.

Szerlag has proposed reducing the millage rate by 0.25 mils to 6.50, the rate at which the budget calculations in the proposal are based.

Last week, council set the not-to-exceed mil rate at last year’s final rate of 6.75 mils as a precaution. It’s the ceiling above which the rate can not be raised for the coming year.

The 6.50 mil rate will increase the proposed general fund revenue to $205,872,108, an increase of $10.2 million over the 2017 adopted budget. Ad valorem taxes will generate $82.2 million even with a reduction in property tax revenue of $3.2 million. The Public Service Tax rate will remain at 7 percent, generating $7.3 million. The Fire Service Assessment rate of recovery was rolled back to 59 percent to generate $24 million in revenue, an increase of $1.5 million over 2017.

Szerlag said the mil rate and Fire Service Assessment reductions will save taxpayers $5.1 million on their tax bills, about the same as using the established “rollback rate” of 6.344.

Among expenditures, Szerlag continues the annual street light enhancement and installation program, $6.5 million in capital catch-up for road resurfacing, as well as amounts for median improvements, alley paving and maintenance of parks and governmental facilities.

After two hours of random questions, Mayor Marni Sawicki called an audible amid confusion to hear department heads present their individual budgets. Each answered questions asked by council and Budget Review members.

Parks & Recreation Director Steve Pohlman showed a net overall reduction of $1.3 million for 2018. He has 121 full-time staff members with two vacancies and said the youth programs serve an average of 800 kids per week.

In answer to a question, Pohlman said research into adding solar panels at Sun Splash to heat the pools for use year round proved not to be cost effective.

Pohlman made reference to findings for the Parks Master Plan adopted earlier this year with the top request from the public being more special events to draw the community together. He has just two staff members working special events and wants to add a third.

He was pressed on two other aspects for his department – getting Festival Park up and running with a amphitheater feature and a full-time employee for the Special Pops program to replace two contract part-timers. These two drew the most interest from council members.

“You say it would cost $1.5 million to get started at Festival Park?” questioned Councilmember Rana Erbrick. “I think we need to get that going, do something before some other city or county does. Start small. I believe we have failed the community of we don’t make that a priority.”

Erbrick agreed with Councilmember Richard Leon and others on council that paved roadways are unnecessary at first. Other venues started with dirt roads with parking on the grass and some grew into special places over a period of decades, citing past concerts and “Woodstock” type events being held in open fields and pastures.

Police Chief Dave Newlan said his department has 234 sworn police officers in addition to non-sworn and volunteers. His budget shows a reduction of about 10 staff members due to the privatization of crossing guards this year.

Asked what it costs to hire a new officer, Newlan responded $143,000 per officer for the first year in salary, benefits, equipment, patrol car, etc. His department recently swore in seven new officers.

Fire Chief Donald Cochran showed an increase in his proposed budget for 2018 due to hiring 12 new firefighters to staff Fire Station 11 set to open in 2018 on Burnt Store Road south of Yucatan Parkway. He said his 2019 budget will show a reduction until Fire Station 12 is built in 2020.

Cochran said he has 196 personnel in his department with six vacancies.

Community Development Director Vince Cautero covered his budget figures for which most of his general fund money goes toward salaries. He is fully staffed with nine planning staff and 25 code enforcement officers. His main expenditure request is for training and travel for planners to maintain certifications.

Depending on council taking action in favor of regulating short-term rentals in the city, he asked for $64,000 to purchase software to track the rentals.

Still to come on Thursday are presentations by the Charter School System, Economic Development, Public Works and Utilities.