Wichita City Council to vote on 2013 budget on Tuesday

City Manager Robert Layton’s proposed $533 million 2013 budget gets one final public look Tuesday before the Wichita City Council is scheduled to approve it.

The final budget hearing, and the council’s anticipated vote, are part of Tuesday’s 9 a.m. council meeting at City Hall.

The 2013 budget represents the first of what city officials are hoping are the final two years of an austerity program fueled by the recession and the severe downturn in the aviation industry.

The result, said Mayor Carl Brewer and Layton, is a skin-tight budget administered by a bare-bones city staff, yet a budget that includes a $23 million reserve balance in the general fund, financially stabilizes the city’s embattled transit system for two years while its longer-term future is charted, maintains core police and fire services, begins the process of automating water bill collection and maintains the city’s commitment to street repair and maintenance through a variety of new road technologies.

The balanced budget to be presented Tuesday comes after months of work to erase significant deficits, in the 2012 budget and the projected 2013 and 2014 budgets. It eliminates projected deficits of $1.2 million this year, $5.4 million in 2013 and $6.7 million in 2014 while avoiding for now layoffs that city officials had feared earlier were inevitable.

“For the most part, to have a balanced budget when you’re as far behind as we were, you can’t be anything but happy,” Brewer said. “We have some additional opportunities to think further outside the box on how we can do more with less and provide the same services and quality of life citizens are expecting.”

However, the budget includes a broad array of cutbacks, including the elimination of 64 city positions in 2012 and 2013, most through the reorganization of the engineering, police and finance departments. The budget also raises a variety of fees, including fire inspections, electronic transaction convenience fees, municipal court program fees and planning applications, all told raising about $835,000 for the city budget. A plan to rework City Hall parking rates isn’t finalized, but the goal, Layton said, is to raise an additional $50,000 and “bring our lot prices up to the area, so we’re no longer the cheapest place to park for people who want to do business downtown.”

A couple of the more notable cuts come against the city’s library system and the Old Cowtown Museum. At the library, service will be reduced by 46 hours per week during non-peak times at the least productive locations in the system. Up to $150,000 will be saved by not filling vacant positions.

And at Cowtown, the facility’s budget is being cut by $80,000 and board members are being urged to step up a fundraising program that raises slightly less than $50,000 a year. The museum is the only one of five city arts and cultural institutions that requires supplemental funding from the city’s general fund to pay its bills — $208,258 in 2012, a figure estimated to drop to $143,186 in 2013.

The job cutbacks — in many cases middle- and upper-management jobs — are as far as the city can go on staffing, Brewer and Layton said. When revenue improves, it is likely that the city will begin hiring again.

“What we found is that over many years as we’d cut staff, we probably cut disproportionally in the field and became top-heavy,” Layton said. “My challenge to the department directors three years ago was to come back with more efficient plans to operate their departments.”

In the interim, a plan to strategically prioritize 2013 and 2014 hires will be put in place, to make sure important positions are filled.

“It’s not a complete hiring freeze,” Brewer said, “because we’re looking for directors in central inspection, transit. We do have some police patrol positions that we have to have them out on the street.”

But the position cutbacks are a problem, the city manager said.

“I think that we have some service areas ... where there are some legitimate concerns about service erosion,” Layton said. “Not so great that they are leaving us very far off on our benchmarks, but we do have anecdotal information and we’re starting to watch that.”

One example of the potential service erosion on the city’s radar, Layton said, is utilities — the city’s water and sewer systems “where there is a lot of pressure,” Layton said, “all the time to keep the rates as low as possible.”

“We want to make sure, for example, that we’re doing enough to address breaks timely,” he said. “Main breaks, and be able to do the regular preventative maintenance that’s critical.”

It’s almost impossible, Layton said, to see any significant revenue bump in time to loosen the city’s belt for 2013 and 2014. Economic upturns take about 18 months to filter down to the city’s budget process, and the big driver of any upturn — the city’s housing market, where new housing starts add to the tax base — is still relatively stagnant.

“We’re seeing a slight uptick in sales tax,” Layton said. “But we’re not really seeing anything beyond that. There’s a little bit more activity in the aviation sector that we’ve read about, some additional hires in the supplier chain as well as the companies themselves. But those are incremental, and increases in the (tax) base I don’t see for 18 months.”

So help isn’t around the corner for city staff. But that doesn’t mean city officials haven’t noticed. Brewer, for example, is hosting a barbecue this weekend for City Hall’s undermanned security force, which works longer hours with overtime pay, due to the hiring slowdown.

“They are understaffed by a significant number. We’re working them a lot of hours,” Brewer said. “We’re recognizing that these people are tired, and they’re not the only ones.

“We’re understaffed in a lot of different areas. When times get better, and they will, I hope we’ll be able to fix that.”

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