June 26, 2013

No easy solutions to fix city’s upcoming budget deficits

Wichitans get a chance Wednesday night to help finish the cutting in what’s shaping up as two more difficult budget years at City Hall.

Wichitans get a chance Wednesday night to help finish the cutting in what’s shaping up as two more difficult budget years at City Hall.

The city council will convene its district advisory boards and committees during an early evening meeting to hone in on the last $2 million in cuts to balance the 2014 and 2015 budgets.

There are no tax increases in the works, no immediate job cuts on the horizon, no hiring freezes, no proposals to eliminate significant city programs, no major fee increases. But it may mean holding open positions the city had planned to use to help repair its crumbling streets. And it could spell the end of some aging neighborhood swimming pools around the city that are in need of thousands in repairs.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the 2013 budget is balanced, the 2014 budget still has a $1.06 million deficit, and the 2015 budget still is $1.18 million short.

“This is a difficult year, and when I say difficult, what I mean is that in 2014 and 2015, the planning horizon will continue to be a difficult climate for the city,” said City Manager Robert Layton, who will unveil the latest version of his proposed budget Wednesday night at City Hall.

“Even though we are seeing some improvement in the sales tax, we are not seeing the kind of growth in property valuation that we thought,” Layton said. “That’s an important part of funding the general fund, and it makes it really difficult to balance the budget.”

City officials are planning for only minor growth in assessed valuation, based on the latest Sedgwick County estimates. Instead of the 1.9 percent growth projected for 2014 and the 2.8 percent for 2015, the latest county projections are for 0.5 percent in 2014 and 1.5 percent in 2015. The result is $880,000 less in revenue for the 2014 budget and $1.79 million less for 2015.

Even though those deficit numbers are far under the shortfalls the city faced last year, Layton said the city has played most of its budget-cutting cards.

“Over the last three or four years, we have tried to right-size the organization by reorganizing our staff,” he said. “We have shed some services, privatized some and had other agencies provide some. It’s been a very thoughtful process, but with these valuation limitations, we have to go deeper.”

The city expects to get some help from an unexpected source. After planning for a 10 percent growth in health insurance premiums, that number will come in closer to 8 percent because of wellness programs and other factors, Layton said. That translates into almost $400,000 saved for the 2014 budget and a little more than $800,000 in 2015.

And there’s good projected news from the city’s internal water conservation plan, that should yield almost $250,000 in savings a year.

The other big-ticket move in Layton’s recommended budget is holding open a large group of positions in the city’s road and bridge department. The plan calls for only the highest-need vacancies to be filled, yielding almost $800,000 for each year’s budget.

That’s not good news for a city that wants to get ahead of street maintenance issues.

“This makes it difficult to stop the erosion of service,” Layton said. “We will do all the necessary infrastructure work, but we’re not going to get ahead of the game, by any means.”

The budget crunch also could spell the end of the city’s neighborhood pool system, several which face thousands of dollars of work to repair leaks. The potential tab for that work is so large, Layton said, that the city may study pool usage and begin retooling into a “regional” system.

The police department also faces cuts, including a one-year recruiting class delay that would save the city $600,000 and the elimination of the city’s police helicopter, a move that would save $1.15 million in 2014 and 2015. Layton said the recruiting class delay is the most likely option, with the police helicopter fielding 4,000 calls annually.

The cuts are frustrating, Layton said — to him and to city staff.

“As resources dwindle, it’s taking a toll on our employees who are putting in some great extra effort trying to avoid eroding service levels,” Layton said. “They see that they are putting more time in, but they’re not getting results. It’s demoralizing to the employee and to the customer.

“What we’re trying to do is strive for excellence in everything we do. We want to be a first-class city. We just can’t get there yet.”

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