Kalispell City Council decided against creating a controversial fee system for the city’s parks and recreation department Monday night, instead opting to put the decision on the ballot in November for voters to decide if they are willing to pay it.
But now, roughly $500,000 of the annual budget for the Parks and Recreation department must go back into the city’s general fund, forcing even bigger budget cuts – and leaving city employees nervous that layoffs loom in the future.
As in most cities, Kalispell’s general fund is the money the core of the city’s services depend on, including the police, fire department, public works, courts, the offices of city manager and city attorney, and parks and recreation. Prior to Monday night’s meeting, the general fund had already been adjusted down from $11,350,998 to $10,823,180, but that budget assumed the council would vote to create a special parks maintenance district, with a fee city residents would pay to fund the upkeep of Kalispell’s parks. The city’s parks and recreation budget is about $1.6 million, with about two-third of the department’s budget paid for by the revenue generated from camps, sports leagues and other programs.
At an Aug. 4 public hearing, and Monday night, members of the public stated their opposition to how the parks district would be created – unless 50 percent of city taxpayers expressed written opposition, the city would create the district.
City councilors listened, and decided on a more democratic way of assessing the parks maintenance fee, but putting it to a vote means even if it passes, the city won’t have the revenue from funds to include in its budget until the next fiscal year.
The city council postponed its vote on appropriations for the general fund, and all other funds, until its Sept. 2 meeting, in order to recalculate the general fund including the parks and recreation department.
“It isn’t just the parks budget that it going to be affected by this, it is the city’s budget in its entirety,” said Councilman Hank Olson.
Councilman Jim Atkinson railed against the state legislature for the funding shortfall, saying state lawmakers limit the amount cities can raise property taxes while prohibiting other means of raising revenue, like through a local option sales tax. The more fiscally conservative members of the council, like Bob Hafferman and Tim Kluesner, pushed back against fee increases, and advised that the city reign in nonessential projects for a few years until its finances stabilize.
“We can defer items,” Hafferman said. “When we have a budget crunch, we just don’t go on doing everything that we would merrily like to do.”
The council also voted on several levy increases for city services, leaving the fees for urban forestry and the special lighting district untouched. Garbage collection will increase $6 annually. The city’s special street maintenance levy will increase by 10 percent, and its storm sewer maintenance fee will increase 11.5 percent.
Mike Nicholson, president of the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said city employees are very nervous about the potential for job losses, and he urged council members to cut expenses in ways that avoided layoffs, like looking into early buyouts of some older workers.
“People don’t have to lose their jobs over it and they don’t have to worry where their next house payments are going to come from,” Nicholson said. “It’s a stressful time for employees; the morale with the city of Kalispell right now is not very high.”
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