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JC council members wrangle with budget priorities

JC council members wrangle with budget priorities

In tight fiscal year

July 28th, 2013 in News

JCPD officers Collier Nichols, right, and Nick Sanders discuss an incident after responding to a residential call. The department is short staffed and logging about 1,000 overtime hours per month as a result.

Photo by Julie Smith

The Jefferson City Council will begin its 2014 budget discussions Monday, starting with revenue projections. But in what is expected to be a tight budget year, what will council members see as the biggest funding priorities?

A general consensus of council members indicates the biggest discussions will be on allocating $130,000 to pay for a full-time finance director and the elimination of funding for JCTV, which are both proposals included in Mayor Eric Struemph's budget.

"JCTV obviously is going to be a controversial thing," said 3rd Ward Councilman Bob Scrivner.

Struemph's budget proposes eliminating the $110,000 contribution for JCTV, which isn't the first time the station's funding has been at risk. During last year's budget discussions, Struemph had proposed eliminating the station's funding, which was $165,000 at the time. Instead, the council opted to reduce the amount of funding and urged the station to make up the difference through fundraising efforts or additional contributions from Lincoln University.

Fourth Ward Councilwoman Carrie Carroll said public access is very important, but it may be time to see if any funding can be found outside of the city.

"I know it's clear that the city won't be able to fund it at the current level if at all, so what is the bare minimum the city could put into it?" Carroll said. "What's the bare minimum to keep it alive?"

"I think it's just going to be a huge challenge."

First Ward Councilman Jim Branch said one issue is many residents do not have access to JCTV, which only is carried on Mediacom and CenturyLink.

"We've got to pinch pennies right now," Branch said. "It's almost to the point where in order to fund something, you have to cut something."

Fifth Ward Councilman Ralph Bray said he has a hard time seeing JCTV getting the same level of funding or any funding in the next year.

"It doesn't look real good for JCTV," Bray said. "Every dollar is important and, especially this time, we need to make sure that we're making the best use out of every dollar."

Second Ward Councilman J. Rick Mihalevich said in tough budget times, the council needs to decide what qualifies as an essential city service and JCTV clearly does not rank as high as fire, police and transit.

When Struemph presented his proposed budget July 18, he noted that funding for JCTV is not an essential service for the city right now.

"We're working with very little room to maneuver," said 1st Ward Councilman Rick Prather. "I think the mayor said it correctly."

Prather said the city's revenues are down this year, though the $5 million drop in revenues from 2013 to the 2014 fiscal year is misleading, as some of that reduction is due to a change in the city's grant procedures.

Grant funds are no longer being budgeted before the city receives them, which makes the revenue drop look more daunting than it may be. The proposed budget has allocated $1.4 million less in grant revenues for 2014 compared to the current fiscal year, but that doesn't mean that money won't come in throughout the year.

"It's going to be really a tough task for all of us to really find room in that budget for any additional expenses," Prather said.

Fifth Ward Councilman Larry Henry said the city's overall revenues need to get better and the council needs to figure out how to encourage that growth. Henry said he wants to make sure the city is not scrambling later to make up for lost revenues or poor projections at the last minute.

The council also is expected to have a large discussion on Struemph's proposal to use $130,000 from vacancy savings to fund a full-time finance director. Bill Betts, information technology director, also has been filling the role of interim finance director since January. Former finance director Steve Schlueter retired at the end of September 2012, and the city has not had a full-time director since.

Prather said Betts has been doing a great job as interim finance director, but if the city had had someone experienced in the position before, the $1.68 million shortfall discovered earlier this year could have been found earlier.

"It'd be nice to get someone there ... so that we can make sure that going forward, we have some good advice," Prather said. "But it takes money ... it's a balancing act."

Henry said the city needs a finance director, but any spending is likely to be looked at very closely.

"That'll be a heavy, heavy discussion," Henry said.

Fourth Ward Councilman Carlos Graham said he supports the idea of funding a full-time finance director, something the city needs, but all aspects of the budget will need to be studied.

"At this point, I think everything needs to be on the table," Graham said.

Several council members also spoke about trying to find ways to restore previous cuts to overtime costs in the Jefferson City Police Department.

"I would love to find some money in there for getting some overtime back for the police department," Prather said. "But I just don't see where I can find it. It is going to be tough."

Mihalevich said he would like to restore police overtime, and Carroll said she wants to try to ensure public safety funding is a priority.

Another topic that may be brought up is overall City Hall staffing levels.

Carroll said she would like to have a discussion on staffing levels at City Hall, considering the number of positions being left vacant.

"It's definitely a discussion we need to have," Carroll said. "I think (staffing) is very important right now."

Third Ward Councilman Ken Hussey said there are a number of staff vacancies and he believes there should be a conversation about staffing to ensure the city is meeting the needs of the city.

Graham said he thinks the interim positions at City Hall need to be filled with full-time staff who may feel more comfortable making decisions and plans that may change departments.

"I'm not for just continuing on with interims just to save," Graham said. "We need to have some solid plan in place to move forward."

Carroll said she also would like to find a way to include some type of salary increase for employees. Struemph's budget does not include any cost of living or merit increases for city employees, which follows the budget proposed by City Administrator Nathan Nickolaus in May.

"It should be looked at every year," Carroll said. "I don't want to go below where we need to be ... and make sure that we maintain the best staff possible."

Scrivner said he would like to discuss some additional funds for the maintenance of trees in city right-of-way, though he's not sure the topic will be brought up as he would need to find another spot in the budget to get the money.

"I don't have any idea at this point where to find the money," Scrivner said.

Street side tree maintenance is a responsibility of the Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department. In March, the City Council approved a series of cuts to help cover a $1.68 million shortfall in this fiscal year and, because the department has its own dedicated sales tax to fund its operations, the only cut the department received was a $20,000 cut to street side tree maintenance, leaving $25,000 in that line item.

In previous meetings of the Public Works and Planning Committee, department director Bill Lockwood has requested an ordinance change to allow the parks department to be responsible for tree maintenance in the Downtown Beautification District only because of a lack of funds to continue the program city-wide. Lockwood has said $90,000 to $100,000 would properly fund the program to keep the responsibility off property owners.

Scrivner said all conversations during the budget process will be each council member backing their idea of what's important and trying to convince the others to fund it.

For right now, he said, council members have not had too many one on one discussions about budget priorities and departments are requesting very little in light of the declining revenues.

"I'm a little bit in a wait-and-see mode," Scrivner said. "Wait and see what people really feel is a high priority."

Second Ward Councilman Shawn Schulte did not return calls for comment.

The council will meet at 5:30 p.m. Monday at City Hall to begin their budget discussions. Monday's meeting is expected to focus on revenue projections for 2014.