Local Governments Hammer Out Tight Budgets

By Beacon Staff

Times are tight, and the Flathead’s city and county governments recently voted on their respective budgets for the 2008-2009 fiscal year, which began July 1. Here are summaries of what Kalispell, Whitefish, Columbia Falls and Flathead County have to work with for the coming year.

After months of deliberation and three proposals, Kalispell City Council planned to vote on a balanced budget Sept. 22 that minimizes job cuts, does not deplete Kalispell’s cash reserves, but does reduce some public services. Kalispell’s current proposed general fund budget totals $10,654,841. That’s down $696,157 from the budget originally proposed in August, which totaled $11,350,998. The current budget proposal forecasts having $473,627 in Kalispell’s cash reserves as of June 30, 2008 – roughly the same amount that exists there now.

While the budget cuts five staff positions, only three city employees actually lost their jobs: two positions in the Parks and Recreation Department, and a building code inspector. In other instances, a fire prevention officer was moved over to fill a vacancy as a firefighter. The hours of two jobs in the Planning Department were reduced from full-time to part-time. The budget, as currently proposed, preserves a city court clerk position that has previously slated for elimination.

“Members of the community are going to see some reductions in services that they aren’t used to and haven’t been used to,” Councilman Jim Atkinson said at a recent budget meeting. “We’re all in this together and we all need to understand that the services that citizens have expected from the city have been pared down and they’re going to see some change.”

At its Sept. 15 meeting the Whitefish City Council approved an effective budget of $25.1 million for the fiscal year 2008-2009, not counting inter-fund transfers. With the transfers, the city’s overall budget authority is $29.1 million, a 4.2 percent increase from last year.

With the exception of 24 voter-approved property tax mills to help fund 24-hour, seven-day-a-week emergency fire and rescue services, the mill rate remains unchanged from the previous fiscal year at 111.21. The budget provides $433,000 in rebates to property owners through the city’s resort tax rebate program. Factoring in the emergency service taxes, Whitefish’s mill rate is still below the average of Montana’s top 10 largest cities.

Improvements to the wastewater treatment plant and sewage lift station, among other projects, boosted the capital outlay portion of the budget by $900,000 from last year to a little over $10 million. Also included in the capital outlay expenses are a new ice resurfacer and an ambulance.

Last week, the Columbia Falls City Council approved an increase of about 10 mills, but still has to finalize its city budget. The council is expected to vote on the budget in October.

The mill hike will mean about a $20 increase for a city resident with a home appraised at $250,000, a family of four and a 10,000-foot square lot. It includes costs for city sewer, water, roadwork and property taxes, City Manager Bill Shaw said.

The current proposed general fund budget totals about $2 million. Improvements to the wastewater treatment plant and sewage lift station, among other projects, boosted the capital outlay portion of the budget by $900,000 from last year to a little over $10 million.

The city may also need to approve an increase in sewer and water fees at the end of the year, because growth has slowed and is no longer keeping up with costs, Shaw added.

With revenue from growth in Flathead County declining significantly, county officials are trimming department budgets now and putting a freeze on new hires in hopes of avoiding staff cuts next year.

In recent years, new growth has provided the needed revenue to maintain the county’s current level of service, but the recent decline in construction activity has cut new valuation dollars by about half. This year’s valuation growth increased just 2.7 percent, and county officials expect even further decline next year.

“We have worked hard to build adequate fund balances so we will be OK this budget year,” County Administrator Mike Pence said. “In anticipation of even more dramatic reduction in growth numbers, we are taking proactive measures to try to avoid painful budgetary actions next year.”

The county is beginning the year with a balance of $27.4 million. Its total revenue projection is $67.6 million, while expenditures are expected to total $69.4 million and will cut into reserves.

The proposed tax levy is 145.96 mills – a 3.57 mill increase from last year. A county resident with a $150,000 market value home would see an increase of $34.31 on their property tax bill.

While cutting department budgets and holding vacant positions open may prevent layoffs next year, the result will be a decline in some county services. For example, the Road Department has left 8 ½ full-time positions open and will likely lose about $900,000 in federal funding. Services like snow plowing will be slowed, Pence said, because there will be fewer employees covering the same ground.

Commissioners are scheduled to hold a budget meeting Sept. 30, when they will likely take a final vote.

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