Casper, We Have A Budget; Council Wants A Closer Look With New City Manager
Casper City Council trimmed a little here, added a little there, and informally agreed at a work session Tuesday to adopt a $129.2 million budget for the next fiscal year beginning July 1.
The budget process is nearly complete after a demand late last week for alternatives to the budget that had been in preparation for a half year, Mayor Kenyne Humphrey said.
"This budget that we finished tonight is going to move forward for a public vote," Humphrey said. "It had a few cuts and a few additions, and then council wants to re-evaluate it after the first quarter that it's been in place."
The city staff had been working on the budget since the beginning of the year at the direction of former City Manager V.H. McDonald, and the budget anticipates a $3 million decrease in general fund revenues.
This effort continued a two-and-a-half-year trend beginning in early 2015 when council began anticipating a sharp decline in revenues after oil prices crashed and again in 2016 with the collapse of coal prices.
As the austerity measures kicked in, Humphrey said the city has saved millions of dollars and reduced its work force from 563 to 500 through attrition and by not filling vacant positions. Even so that hasn't been enough to offset recent sharper declines in sales tax revenues.
The proposed budget would maintain current service levels and not require layoffs. But it will result in a $1.1 million deficit so the city would need to draw down about $5 million of its $20 million in reserves.
Thursday, new Councilmember Dallas Laird said at a work session that he's seen previous energy busts and wanted to know how long the city could draw down the reserves without significant budget cuts.
Laird and a couple other council members wanted to see what other options were available including possible layoffs and closing some city facilities.
Despite the six-month budget drafting process, the councilmembers' request resulted in the city staff spending the Memorial Day weekend to come up with a one-page budget summary.
Tuesday, Interim City Manager Liz Becher showed the results to council. Those results included drastic changes to city functions including closing the Hogadon Ski Area, the outdoor pools, the Recreation Center, Fort Caspar, the Aquatic Center, and the Ice Arena.
Council members promptly dismissed the proposed drastic cuts.
But other city programs were scrutinized, and council members learned their elimination may save money in the short term but create long-term problems.
For example, Laird questioned the need for the alcohol court set up in Municipal Court, to which Municipal Court Judge Keith Nachbar said probably has helped in a reduction in DUIs from more than 500 in 2012 to about 300 now. Nachbar said eliminating the alcohol court would put more pressure on other courts and law enforcement.
Some also questioned the work of the Platte River restoration that has restored several miles of the river. Jolene Martinez, who oversees this project, said eliminating funding would end the project and that would be hard to restart because invasive species such as Russian Olives would take root again. The work on the river has saved Wyoming Boulevard near Morad Park from being washed out, has created wetlands that purify street runoff, and has saved two water wells, Martinez said.
With many big-ticket items safe, council members looked at ideas to generate more revenue, such as increasing fees for building permits that haven't changed since the late 1970s.
They also trimmed money for community promotions, a little-used short-term disability insurance policy for city employees, and other programs.
However, they added some money to a senior citizens program and police department requests for improvement to its firing range.
Councilmember Shawn Johnson said the savings amounted to about $219,000.
Council members said they will want to see stronger documentation and accountability from entities that receive city funding, such as the Economic Development Joint Powers Board -- a creation of the city and Natrona County -- that funnels $420,000 to the Casper Area Economic Development Alliance.
They also want to work with the new city manager to discuss the budget in greater detail.