Kalispell City Council is poised to vote on a revised budget that reduces general fund spending by nearly $100,000, but doesn’t lay off any public safety employees. At a work session Monday night, most council members expressed general approval of a budget that will leave an estimated $258,788 in the city’s cash reserve at the end of the current fiscal year, next summer.
But the current proposed budget, up for a vote at the Dec. 15 council meeting, still eats into the city’s cash reserves, burning through some $200,000 over the course of the year from its current level of about $470,000 – an extremely low level for a city of Kalispell’s size. While the council managed to avoid any staff layoffs at present, the problem persists that the city government’s expenditures exceed its revenue, and the threat of job cuts will loom until some way can be found to balance Kalispell’s budget.
“This is really more of a band-aid than a cure,” Interim City Manager Myrt Webb told the council. “We’re going to need to do more at some time…whether that help is going to come in revenues that I don’t foresee right now, I don’t know.”
Kalispell’s roughly $10.5 million general fund is the only place where the city can cut back on its spending, since most of its other funds are designated for specific purposes. Webb has suggested a 5.6 percent decrease in spending across all city departments paid for by the general fund. And because payroll for the fire and police departments makes up the biggest portion of the general fund, layoffs to firefighters and police officers have been on the table. But council members have made clear they do not want to cut jobs unless it is absolutely necessary.
The discussion grew testy at times as Councilman Hank Olson suggested that the council was not meeting its chief obligation to taxpayers by avoiding making the unpopular decision to cut jobs, which Webb has suggested as the primary way to bring the budget under control.
“I’m just a little amazed at what’s going on here,” Olson said. “You can’t run a bank, you can’t run a home, you can’t run a business if you take less money in than you spend…when are we going to face reality?”
“You guys are kidding yourselves, in my opinion, on spending three weeks on 20 percent of the budget when 80 percent is people,” Olson continued. “I don’t want to fire them either, but we better step up to reality here or none of us is going to have a job.”
Mayor Pam Kennedy and Councilman Duane Larson replied that city taxpayers also expect adequate public safety departments for the money they pay.
“I don’t want to assume that we’re going to go broke in the next month or the next year,” Larson said. “We also have a taxpayer obligation to provide the services.”
“The taxpayers didn’t ask us to gamble,” Olson said.
“They also didn’t ask us to gamble with people’s lives,” Larson replied.
“My responsibility is to the taxpayer,” Olson said.
“All of us have that responsibility,” Kennedy said.
“Well, I don’t hear it from you,” Olson said to the council.
The chamber was filled with city firefighters and police officers waiting to see if the council’s discussion indicated imminent cuts to their departments. Several community members also spoke in opposition to any public safety cuts. The council will vote on the revised budget at its next meeting, and instructed Webb to discuss the ongoing status of the city’s finances at future work sessions. As for whether the prospect of job cuts still exists for city employees, the answer remains uncertain.
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