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Layoffs and Tax Hikes Proposed in Whitefish

By Beacon Staff

The fire and police chiefs in Whitefish are bracing for layoffs after city officials released a fiscal year 2011 budget proposal calling for “major reductions in services and staffing.” A full-time employee in the parks and recreation department may also be laid off.

The budget proposal, released by City Manager Chuck Stearns and Finance Director Rich Knapp on June 6, goes on to recommend pay freezes for non-union employees and an increase in property taxes, among other measures.

Stearns, as a way of “leading by example,” has also volunteered to reduce his salary from $110,000 to $100,000, a 9.1 percent decrease.

“This move is more symbolic than an economic benefit to the city,” Stearns wrote in a memo to city officials, “but I feel it is necessary and appropriate.”

City council was scheduled to address the budget proposal in a meeting on Tuesday June 15 at 6 p.m. at council chambers in City Hall and another meeting on June 16. Council could vote on a preliminary budget on June 16 or at another meeting before the 2011 fiscal year begins on July 1.

The proposed budget would increase year-end cash reserves in property tax-supported funds to 4.1 percent of appropriations, or $287,759, compared to the estimated 1.7 percent, or $161,153, at the start of the fiscal year. The bump in cash reserves, along with a more balanced budget, would be achieved through widespread expenditure cuts, revenue increases and transfers.

Stearns has recommended two layoffs in the police department. One involves a police officer who already plans to retire in December after 21 years on the job, but now may be indefinitely laid off on June 30, with the option of using his accumulated vacation, compensatory time and personal days before retirement, or be cashed out immediately. The layoff, Stearns said, would save the city $38,200.

The other officer, also a full-time employee, would be laid off on July 31, saving the city $50,000 for the fiscal year. Additionally, the Whitefish Police Protective Association, the department’s union, is in pay-freeze negotiations with the city.

After the association met with Stearns on June 8, Police Chief Bill Dial said the union may be willing accept a pay freeze to avoid the layoffs, if the city makes certain concessions.

In addition, the city’s animal warden, who works under the jurisdiction of the police department, is retiring in August and his position will not be filled. The city will try to work out a deal with Flathead County to provide animal control services.

“He’s not just a dog catcher,” Dial said. “He helps us set up for parades, with administrative stuff, parking enforcement. He’s going to be sorely missed.”

For three years in a row, major crime rates – such as assaults – have gone down in Whitefish, Dial said. But he fears that a reduction in force could stall that momentum.

Also, the proposed layoffs come at a time when the department is moving into the new emergency services building, requiring additional manpower to transport equipment and records, including years’ worth of evidence.

“It’s going to affect the level of service we’re going to be able to provide to the community; it’s going to affect quality of life here,” Dial said. “It’s going to take away our ability to be as proactive as we want, and we may have to be more reactive.”

Dial said his department has already cut out $139,000 of its 2011 budget to trim costs and try to avoid layoffs. Among the areas cut are capital expenses, operational maintenance and training. Dial was scheduled to address the city council on June 15 about his concerns.

In his time as chief, Dial said his department has never experienced layoffs, though he has terminated positions for various reasons.

“We’ve been through tight times before, but nothing as tight as this,” Dial said. “It’s affecting morale. Right now I’m secure, but you never know. I really empathize with those two guys (being laid off).”

In August of 2008, voters approved a 24-mill levy increase to fund expanded emergency services operations. Then in January of 2009, the city was awarded a $650,280 Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant that also went toward additional firefighters. Later, the city council voted to not levy the full 24-mill increase because of the additional aid from the SAFER grant.

In the recent budget proposal, Stearns wrote that six new firefighters were initially hired and he approved the hiring of a seventh because he felt the city had sufficient funds through the SAFER grant and levy increase. Stearns is now asking for the elimination of one of the new positions, as well as for the full 24 mills to be levied.

“I know there is a strong desire to avoid property tax increases,” Stearns said, “but given the level of layoffs occurring, I think it is better to raise property taxes than to cut positions and services further.”

But Fire Chief Tom Kennelly said the position up for cutting is vital to both his department and public safety.

“They’re eliminating a paramedic firefighter, which is important, because it will affect emergency medical response as well as the fire department,” Kennelly said. “This is a full-time employee who’s been here for over a year, a fully trained paramedic firefighter.”

Kennelly said when citizens voted for the increased mill levy two years ago they made it clear they wanted better emergency services. For years, officials in Whitefish had discussed the need to expand services to improve emergency response time.

“(Now) it’s a matter of educating the city council as far as the importance of this individual to the safety of this community,” Kennelly said.

Furthermore, the city is in negotiations with the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) Local 3995 regarding the possibility of conceding wage increases. Stearns said the union has agreed to reopen contract negotiations but the two sides haven’t come to an agreement.

The parks and recreation department has four full-time employees, but the budget proposal recommends cutting one position, bringing staffing level back to where it was in 2009. A full-time park maintenance position had been added this year to handle snow removal on the expanded paved trail system, as well as weed abatement through chemical application.

Karl Cozad, the department’s director, said response time for plowing after a snowfall at city parks and pathways will be slower if the layoff is carried out. People could also expect to see more weeds around town.

“When you take 10,000 work hours back down to 7,500 work hours, that’s a significant impact on your ability to maintain facilities,” Cozad said.

Stearns has also proposed an $80,000 one-time transfer from the Special Improvement Revolving Fund’s reserves into the general fund, as well as a pay freeze on non-union positions. These positions include department directors, clerical and office workers, administrators, building inspectors and planners. Stearns has recommended several other cost-cutting and revenue-gaining measures as well.

The upcoming weeks promise to be busy for the council as it tries to hammer out a preliminary budget. Stearns expects to hear numerous suggestions.

“While I tried to focus on making layoffs which would have the least effect on city services,” Stearns wrote in the budget proposal, “the mayor and city council may rightly have different perspectives on priorities and proposals.”

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