Kalispell Budget Crunch Results in Five Job Cuts

By Beacon Staff

Kalispell’s city government is cutting five positions in an effort to reduce its operating budget for this year, and depending on what the city council indicates at its work session Monday, there could be more cuts on the way.

As part of the “reduction in force,” two positions in the Parks and Recreation Department are being “discontinued,” according to City Attorney Charlie Harball. Additionally, a zoning enforcement job, which was part of the planning department, was cut, and a building inspector job. A fire prevention officer job will be eliminated and that employee will fill a current vacancy as a firefighter within the Kalispell fire department, Harball said.

City Manager Jim Patrick met with the employees losing their jobs last week, Harball said, to give them 30 days notice and counsel them on their options. In a memo written by Patrick to city employees dated Sept. 2, Patrick attributed the job cuts to the state-imposed limits on how much a city can increase property taxes, and the slowing of the national economy.

“Most new construction has stopped or significantly slowed. The growth dollars we have experienced in the past are not there, building permit and planning fees are down, and we all know that the cost for goods and services are higher than last year,” Patrick wrote. “Eighty percent of the general fund budget is for personal services. The directors and I have made cuts to the maintenance and operational budgets but the city is still short over $500,000.”

Patrick also addressed the common criticism that the city faces a budget shortfall while city staff have recently relocated to a new city hall after a renovation project that ran over budget.

“There is the misconception that the budget problem is due to money spent on city hall, however, city hall was financed more than a year ago,” Patrick wrote. “The lease payment on the building is close to the amount the city paid for rental fees on past leased space.”

The Kalispell finance department is currently calculating what the city’s new budget looks like, after the job cuts. Harball said the city government is still forecasted to spend more than it takes in for the current fiscal year. What the city council must debate at its Sept. 8 work session is how deeply to cut into the city’s cash reserves. If council members are uncomfortable with how low the reserves may get, then they may indicate to Patrick that more job cuts are necessary and in what departments the cuts should occur.

No votes are allowed at a work session; the next formal meeting is scheduled for Sept. 15. Other questions the council must grapple with are whether to institute a hiring freeze, even in the face of vacancies on public safety departments, like fire and police.

Of the positions cut, three workers are members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local No. 256. Chapter President Mike Nicholson said the job cuts aren’t layoffs, because in that case the city would be contractually obligated to begin cutting those positions with least seniority. By discontinuing the positions, the union employees are allowed to “bump,” or take a different job with the city – although in this case, Nicholson added, there don’t appear to be any vacancies available to the employees losing their jobs.

Nicholson criticized the city government for cutting its service-level employees, and not attempting to terminate higher-paid city officials, or other options like early buyout offers to some more senior employees nearing retirement.

“They are so management heavy, but they don’t want to get rid of management,” Nicholson said.

For now, he and other city employees are waiting to see if the council indicates at its next work session that more cuts could be on the way. But the uncertainty has city employees nervous, Nicholson said, many of whom opted for government jobs over positions in the private sector, because of the supposed stability a government job provides.

Harball echoed that sentiment.

“They come to work for the city, where they may make less, because the stability is there,” Harball said. “When things like this happen, it really throws that sense of stability and really causes a lot of angst.”

In his memo, Patrick noted that many cities across Montana are facing similar funding problems this year and that the Legislature must provide some type of alternative funding resources for municipalities, like local option sales tax authority. Additionally, Patrick said the city would not be hiring any seasonal staff in the spring and summer except for pool staff.

“It is extremely hard to notify employees that their position is not funded in this year’s budget,” Patrick wrote, “but I have had to make some of those hard choices and we will lose some very valuable employees.”