Fewer services, job cuts part of city budget

The budget does not include funding for additional red light cameras.

Columbia residents will not see increases in their city taxes this year, but they will find increases in fees for city services and less staff available to provide those services, according to the city budget released Thursday morning.

At a news conference to announce the $403.3 million budget for fiscal year 2010, City Manager Bill Watkins said Columbia’s financial situation is “stable but not comfortable.” He said he expects to see reductions in grants for city projects and no growth in sales tax revenue.

Watkins said the combination of job cuts and fee increases are part of a three-year plan to reduce the gap between city revenue and spending. In fiscal year 2009, the city’s deficit was cut from $4 million to $2 million and Watkins said this year’s budget aims to virtually eliminate it altogether.

“Our goal is to avoid a train wreck in 2011,” he said.

Watkins said no tax increases are necessary to make up this deficit, but he did propose nearly $800,000 worth of fee and user charge increases to offset city costs. He also said monthly utility rates would increase by $8.70 to keep up with increases in the cost of electric power purchases, voter-approved projects and equipment replacement.

Watkins said the budget aims to cut expenses by eliminating some part-time jobs in the city government and by lowering pay increases and benefits for full-time employees.

By eliminating some temporary positions and by leaving some job vacancies unfilled, Watkins estimated the city could save $470,000. He said many of these cuts would come from the both the Health and Parks and Recreation departments.

According to the budget report, the city expects to save almost $1 million by reducing the percentage of unused sick leave hours it buys back from 75 to 50 percent and by reducing the amount of overtime paid.

Watkins said the city would also eliminate employee safety awards and its contribution to the Post-Employment Health Plan, a retirement health insurance fund.

For the Parks and Recreation Department, Watkins said these cuts would mean the department would have to decrease mowing and tree planting at local parks. He said it would also have to serve fewer children through its Career Awareness Related Experience program, which includes many projects aimed at Columbia’s youths.

Parks and Recreation Department Director Mike Hood said his department will see a 5 percent, or $100,000, decrease in its temporary employee budget. He said the department will ask more from its full-time employees, increase volunteer hours and cut back on services.

“In some cases some things that would’ve been done won’t be done," Hood said. "We’re going to reduce our tree planting, One example is that in the past we budget for 240-250 trees, we’re going to cut that back by 75 trees."

Hood said the department would look to see if some jobs, which had been done by paid employees, could be done by volunteers. Hood said despite the cuts, the department intends to provide quality parks for the people of Columbia.

The budget also does not include any provisions for the installation of additional red-light cameras at major intersections beyond the two cameras already approved for trial runs at the intersections of Stadium Boulevard and Worley Street and at Providence Road and Broadway. Watkins said he would wait several months before coming out with any monetary figures for the new cameras.

“There are no provisions in this budget for either revenues or expenses for red-light cameras”, he said, “The logic for this is very simple: We don’t know how these will affect the budget, and until we’ve got a couple months under our belt, I’m not going to be adding revenues or positions.”

Columbia Police Department spokeswoman Jesse Haden said CPD can't really estimate how much time will be required to process red-light citations because she said as more people get used to the cameras, the number of citations may drop. But she also said if more cameras are put in place, as is planned, then the number of tickets would rise again.

"The first part, issuing the citations, will be a once a day occurrence," Haden said. "With regard to how many hours it is going to take, we really don't know."

This year’s budget marks a 3 percent decrease from last year’s, with spending cuts totaling $12 million. Watkins said he could not remember the last time the total budget had decreased from the previous fiscal year.

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