Council Making Little Progress on Budget Talks

By Beacon Staff

In a three-hour work session Monday night, Kalispell City Council failed to make substantial progress toward balancing the budget in a way that would avoid any further job cuts. Instead, the council opted to delay a vote on a city budget until the end of the month and continue to look at alternatives in a work session following its Sept. 15 meeting.

Both council members and city department heads were clearly frustrated as council members continued to pore over the general fund budget in hopes of finding ways to further trim expenses.

“Cuts to balance the budget can be obtained mostly by reducing overhead and non-salary cost, not in personnel that deliver services directly to citizens,” said councilman Bob Hafferman. “We’ve got to look at where we can cut back on a multitude of line items within the budget.”

But after nearly every suggestion a council member made to cut cost, it was clear the city staff had explored the option and offered a rationale for why what they had done was cheapest, or why the budget item could not be cut.

For example, Hafferman and councilman Tim Kluesner questioned why the city had paid a temporary staffing agency $6,000 to cover employees on sick leave, instead of cross-training other city employees to cover the open position, or even hiring a full-time floating city staffer to cover departments with absences.

“It looks really bad if you’re laying off employees but yet you’re keeping the temps on,” Kluesner said. “There’s some perception there that needs to be taken care of.”

City Manager Jim Patrick and Finance Director Amy Robertson replied that most city departments were already stripped to the bone in terms of staffing, and didn’t have employees to spare to cover absences. Hiring from a staffing agency, they added, which covers health insurance and workers’ compensation for the temporary employee is significantly cheaper than taking on another full-time “floater” city staff position to cover absences which would cost the city between $40,000 and $50,000, taking into account insurance expenses.

Much of the meeting went on like this, with some council members insisting there was more fat to trim from the budget, while Patrick maintained the city staff had already done away with unnecessary expenses.

“A few months ago, council’s concern was that we cut back too much in some of these areas,” Patrick said. “I would like to remind you and council this is going on my fourth year; in that time, the budget has not grown over 3 percent, it’s stayed roughly the same … and so there’s not a lot of fluff in here and not a lot of things we can do without.”

Kalispell’s city government is cutting six positions in an effort to reduce its operating budget for this year. The job cuts reduce the city’s original general fund budget from $11,350,998 to $10,780,329. But under the plan recommended by the city staff, Kalispell will still spend more than its revenues in this fiscal year, eating up $167,907 in the city’s cash reserves, leaving $305,639 predicted to be in the bank as of June 30 of next year.

The question before the council was whether they could stomach the city’s cash reserves getting that low. Council members tried to figure out ways to further trim the general fund budget, but no easy answers were apparent.

Councilman Atkinson acknowledged the hard truth facing the city.

“I think given the budget the way it is, there aren’t things that can be cut that are going to meet our requirements of having reserves,” Atkinson said. “If we’re going to balance the budget the way we’re saying we need to balance the budget, then we’ve got to take the heat for the people we’re losing.”

As part of the “reduction in force,” two positions in the Parks and Recreation Department, a receptionist and recreation coordinator are being eliminated. Additionally, a zoning code enforcement officer in the Planning Department was cut, and the hours of a junior planner were reduced. Two fire prevention positions were cut, one of which will fill a current vacancy as a firefighter within the Kalispell fire department. The hours for a crime analyst in the Police Department were also reduced and a court clerk position was eliminated.

Mayor Pam Kennedy said she was not happy to have read about the layoffs in the media and questioned why fire inspection positions were being cut, which could potentially jeopardize public safety, as well as the city’s insurance ratings.

“We have got to make sure that we continue to maintain the integrity of remodels and construction … if we aren’t doing that then we are jeopardizing the safety of our officers and the safety of our citizens,” Kennedy said. “The council did not say go lay off employees, the council said bring us a plan and so that does concern me.”

She also criticized Patrick for not drawing up a more detailed fuel conservation plan for city employees.

“When I see employees on a job site, and I see four employees, and I see four vehicles, it sends a message to me that there’s something wrong,” Kennedy added. “I’m still concerned about what we have here and I’m greatly concerned about the safety issue.”

At the end of the meeting, the department heads explained the effects of the job cuts. Judge Heidi Ulbricht, who is losing a court clerk, noted that while her department took less then 3 percent of general fund spending, she was losing one court clerk, and another clerk on her staff was likely to be replaced by a union employee new to her department, bumping out one of her existing employees who had, after six months, just completed her probationary period.

“It’s going to desecrate my office, that’s all I can tell you. You’re taking 66 percent of my clerks’ knowledge and training and they’re gone,” Ulbricht said.

“The loss of the employee will take us back to pre-2005 staffing levels,” she added. “In 2005 we had about 2,000 less cases a year than we have right now.”

In the absence of any clear direction from the city council, city staff will now draw up more budget alternatives, and the city council will take another crack at the budget Monday night.