City faces $1.5 million shortfall this year, $2.2 million next year

City Hall has to cut back on its fuel spending, find ways to reduce the fees it pays to Sedgwick County to jail suspects and will probably have shrink its management structure or take other steps to avoid a budget shortfall.

And the financial forecast gets uglier next year, city finance officials told city council members this morning.

Budget and research officer Mark Manning initially projected a $3.1 million deficit this year. But he suggested technological improvements, reduced fuel usage, fewer jail fees and management reorganization efforts could trim that to a $1.5 million shortfall. It’s up to City Manager Robert Layton, finance officials and city council members to figure out how to close that gap by mid August when the budget must be approved.

Few details have been offered on how the city could do that.

And those numbers don’t even include the shortfalls in the city’s transit and central inspection budgets.

City officials have said council members will be asked to hike bus fares or cut back on the city’s already bare bones bus routes. Meanwhile, fewer homes being built means less money for the city’s central inspection office. Several inspectors have already been laid off and most employees have also been asked to take furloughs.

The city’s budget woes come after two years of significant cut backs.

City Manager Robert Layton said the city cut about $6 million in general fund spending in 2009 and another $9 million last year. Roughly 175 city jobs have been eliminated. Layton thinks the city will have cut about $8 million more by the end of this year, with more cutbacks to come.

But the city’s $900 million in debt remains.

District 4 council member Micheal O’Donnell called the figure “startling” and asked how the city could continue to increase spending while the local economy is in rough shape and the city is laying people off.

Finance officials said the 4.8 percent growth in spending in the general fund is driven primarily by pension and benefits costs — and some wage increases built into police and fire union contracts. No other city employees will get cost of living raises.

About a third of the city’s $900 million of debt comes from outstanding special assessments created when the city contracts for water service, sewer pipes and new roads to serve new subdivisions, mostly on the fringes of the city. Manning said the city’s debt per capita and other measures put Wichita in a slightly better situation than other comparable cities that have a AAA credit rating.