City right to be tight in tough times

Sweet Home’s proposed city budget for 2012-13 is tighter than it has been in recent years, but we think it should be even more so, especially in light of the disaster mode the city entered last fall.

We’re talking about a tiny portion of a $22 million budget, some $156,000, approximately .7 percent of the budget.

Overall, the budget, as it stands after approval by the Budget Committee (see pages 1, 9 and 12) funds traditional, ongoing services, and even that cuts service levels a little with the elimination of 3.5 full-time equivalent positions, including a police officer, dispatcher, building clerk and library assistant.

The budget also eliminates an important traditional transfer to the building reserve fund. The building fund will be used to construct a new City Hall when the time comes, without asking voters for a general obligation bond levy. We like that. The city is saving the money from existing tax revenues so it won’t have to ask for more. We think this is a prudent use of city funds. Thus, we regret the cut but we recognize the necessity this year.

Also in this year’s budget are 3-percent wage increases for city employees, the majority of which are based on a contract. Non-union employees, primarily supervisors and department heads, will also receive the raise upon receiving a positive evaluation.

We agree with Budget Committee members, including council members Greg Mahler and Scott McKee, who want to freeze the wages of non-represented employees this year. They’re suggesting this because the reality is that we’re all living in tough times right now and it sends the wrong message for city employees to be collecting increases when a lot of other people are looking at bills and job listings.

Folks throughout the community are making the same or less than they made in 2007 prior to the economic meltdown at the end of that year. City employees and many others in the public sector have continued to receive regular wage increases since then. Not all of them, though. School District 55 personnel have had to accept wage freezes since then, and their unions have agreed to wage freezes recognizing the even more difficult budget position the district faces.

The non-represented employees’ raises will cost the city about $26,000, we’re told in the report on page one. That certainly is a tiny amount compared to the entire budget, but neither city nor we should forget how substantial $26,000 actually is.

It is around enough to restore the part-time library assistant position.

The city is no longer flush with money. It is difficult to defend raises for city employees at this time. The City Council should freeze the wages that it can, although it should take into serious consideration Police Chief Burford’s request that his department’s supervisors do receive the raises.

With the elimination of one position and the departure of three police officers for another department, police supervisors are holding the department together, working their shifts and then remaining on call during their off hours, all while making less than patrol officers in some other departments. We want them to stick around and we need to give serious thought to giving them every reason to that we can.

We respect the department heads who have voluntarily taken freezes in the past. That willingness demonstrates their good faith even proposing the raises this year, but this is another good time for them to demonstrate that good faith and save the small amount to ensure that service levels are preserved. Let’s not forget that the Police Levy Fund is going to be in the red in just a couple of years without some kind of transfer from the General Fund or cuts in service levels. City officials are proud of their ability to save on minutiae throughout the year. Let’s save this money too.

As for city employees working under union contracts, we’re not suggesting they follow the lead of their counterparts in the school system, but common sense dictates that now is a good time to look for ways to save us, the citizens, money whenever possible.

Former committee member and Mayor Dave Holley told the committee that the city needs to seriously look at changing the way it does insurance, capping the city’s contribution to the premium. Right now, the city pays 95 percent of insurance premiums. We agree. It’s time for the city to make something work there. The costs are rising. Citizens are seeing benefits reduced as employers are unable to keep up with the rising cost of premiums.

The other $130,000 we think should be cut is a water filling station that will provide bulk water to customers 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The reasoning behind the station is that it would be a source of potable water during an emergency, it would help reduce theft of water, it would help control against contaminants, prevent the breakage of hydrants and it would actually raise revenues for the city. The funds to pay for it are restricted to new construction and expansion of the water system.

The water filling station is unnecessary, and the funds can be saved, collecting interest, until such time as the city needs them for more traditional water projects rather than increasing water rates or SDCs to cover projects at a future time. All of the city’s goals in building this facility can be achieved with a backflow prevention device, pumps and a meter on an existing hydrant.

The city already requires a backflow prevention device when people access hydrants for bulk water. It merely needs to continue to insist on it or use staff, billing the customer for the time, to ensure it is used properly and that a hydrant is not broken.

In an emergency, the filling station faces the same danger as any hydrant or other source of city water throughout the community. It is just as likely to be out of service. The filling station will do nothing to help reduce theft of water, something city officials acknowledge may not be that big a problem. Regardless of whether a filling station is built, the city can engage in a publicity campaign to urge residents to turn in unauthorized users of the system.

Other arguments for the water system, such as selling water to RV users, really is something the city could do now. It already has a process in place to provide bulk water through hydrants. The city can sell the water through existing hydrants and make money if the service actually is a viable money maker.

Only one of the reasons cannot be provided easily now. The water filling station could provide 24/7 service, but we don’t really need service 24 hours a day. We cannot buy fuel in this community 24/7. We have one business open all night, Circle K. That’s it. We get by with it just fine. If there were a market for fuel, one would be open. The city needs to respond to need, not just ideas.

Overall, we take our hats off to the city for its ongoing wise management of city funds. Its forward-thinking policies are wise, and we think these two changes in expenditures are solidly in keeping with the excellent management of 99.3 percent of the budget.