City Council weighs options as schools ask for help

While city officials contemplate how to deal with the loss of $40,000 in revenue from School District 55 to pay for the school resource officer, the school district asked the city for enough funding to keep the swimming pool open through the summer.

Both items were among $1.1 million in cuts that District 55 is expected to make in its 2010-11 budget, which takes effect on July 1. The district expects to save $75,000 by shutting down the pool and $40,000 by cutting its share of the SRO, a police officer who works within the schools during the school year. The district pays nearly half of the cost of the SRO position.

The city paid to keep the pool open during the summer last year. The district included the pool and SRO in its budget this year, but on May 26, the district learned that a projected state funding shortfall would mean $1.1 million in cuts locally.

“I apologize for being here tonight,” said District 55 Supt. Larry Horton at the regular City Council meeting on June 8. “It was not my intent to be here tonight.”

The district spent down its carryover to maintain its budget this year, from 9 percent of the total budget to 3 percent, he said. After that is when the district learned of the cut.

That first cut was tough enough, he said. Since then, the district has announced 25 items as possible cuts, including school days, administrators, teachers, classified employees, reserve funding and programs.

On June 7, the district held a community meeting, with about 130 citizens attending and 30 speaking.

“It was obvious that there was a huge contingency of people who want to try to save the pool,” Horton said. They have begun discussions about creating an aquatics district, and they asked for time to try to put it on the November ballot.

“From a School District standpoint, we don’t get funded to operate a swimming pool,” Horton said. “We have been supplementing the community’s pool use through student dollars. We can’t afford that any more, so some alternative will have to be developed.”

The summer budget for the pool is $34,869, Horton said. It costs about $225,000 per year to run, and will cost about $100,000 to maintain even if the pool is shut down.

If the city can handle the summer program, Horton said, he was sure the board would support keeping it open until the election in November.

“I’m still a little bit worried about looking for money for the pool right now,” said Mayor Craig Fentiman “We’re already looking at losing $40,000 not trying to dig for money for the pool.”

It is too late in the budget process to change the budget, but it can be changed later, depending on how much money must be moved once the city finds the funds. The budget also can be changed through the supplemental budget process.

Finance Director Pat Gray told the council that it could transfer funds now or it could wait and see an audited amount for its carryover from the 2009-10 budget to the 2010-11 budget.

The carryover is usually larger than budgeted, Gray said, but the city still has other budget issues, such as ongoing employee contract negotiations.

With the SRO, Police Chief Bob Burford told the council that he sees three options.

The department just filled an open position. Option one would be to begin the layoff process for the newly hired officer.

Second would be to backfill the police budget by $40,000 from another city fund. Then the department would assign the officer to day shift during the school year to assist with calls for service generated by the schools.

Third would be to backfill the police budget by $40,000 and fully fund the SRO.

The agreement between the district and city requires a 50-50 split on the cost, Burford said. During the current year, the city picked up $60,000 of the $80,000 cost.

In any case, the department will still need to respond to all calls for service generated by the schools. Under the second option, the officer would still need to be free to respond to other needs within the city.

“I don’t want to see us do away with the position,” Fentiman said. He likes option two because call volumes are not going to decline.

Councilor Jim Gourley asked where the funds might come from.

Burford told the council that he could fund the position for six months with the available funding.

Things can happen during that time, and it would give the city time to identify possible funding, he said.

Rodgers said he had heard a lot of positive things about the previous SRO, John Trahan.

The position gives children an opportunity to get to know the police officer over time, he said.

Burford said students will often seek out the officer for independent and wise advice.

With that, Rodgers said he favored fully funding the SRO. Fowler said she favored options two and three.

Fentiman suggested that the city work through the summer to find the money and then decide between the options, adjusting the budget as necessary.