Kalispell Bolsters Cash Reserve in New Budget

By Beacon Staff

When Kalispell City Manager Jane Howington was hired last summer, the foremost priority imposed on her by the city council was to stabilize and begin to rebuild the city’s dwindling cash reserve – which at that time was one flood or police standoff away from disappearing completely.

Recognizing that obligation, city council members congratulated Howington in the closing minutes of a work session Monday night wrapping up the preliminary budget, for turning in a proposed spending plan for the year that is both balanced and should double Kalispell’s cash reserve, from $244,122 in 2009 to an estimated $556,457 in 2010. For 2011, that reserve is forecast to rise to $655,179: a cushion far from ideal for a city of Kalispell’s size, but a significant improvement over the previous two years.

“I don’t expect doubling of the cash reserve every year,” Howington said in a later interview. “It’ll start building a little more slowly in the future years.”

“I think we’re on the right track,” she added, praising her predecessor, interim City Manager Myrt Webb, for beginning to move Kalispell’s finances in the right direction. “I think he did some of the heavy lifting.”

Howington also praised city department heads for cutting spending.

“They’ve been very responsible and responsive to the challenge that I’ve given them,” she said, singling out the Public Works Department for reducing expenditures by more than $2 million. “That’s a huge thing and I think that they need to be recognized for being able to get to that.”

Howington also complimented the police and fire departments for reorganizing budgets and applying for grant funding, all while dispatchers were moving to the new, consolidated 911 center – a change that saves the city no funds this year, but could begin to cost the city less as expenses like bookkeeping and records management become consolidated.

Still, Howington acknowledged the proposed budget isn’t perfect, and does not invest in new equipment and public projects to the extent that she believes saves money over the long term.

“Our capital plan is pretty abysmal, but we’re able to provide good basic services without having our residents suffer,” she said, adding that her second year on the job would increasingly focus on economic development. “We still have major issues in job growth.”

According to the preliminary budget, the general fund for fiscal year 2011 will be $9,072,078, making up about one-fifth of the total budget, which includes enterprise funds, capital projects and special revenue, of $45,695,789. That $9.07 million will be higher than the current year’s general fund spending, which is $8,748,115, but lower than the prior two years.

The city council will vote to approve the preliminary budget at a special June 28 meeting and will schedule a public hearing on the budget for July 19.

Also at Monday’s meeting, council members heard from several residents of Kalispell’s west side, angry that the city appropriates $5,000 in the new budget from its airport enterprise fund on a planning grant to consider future improvements to the city airport. Ninety-five percent of the planning grant would be paid for by the Federal Aviation Administration, for a study estimated to cost $100,000.

“We do not want another $100,000 spent when you know the answers,” Scott Davis told council members. “It’s going to tell you that you can’t realign the runway without ownership of the Wise property.”

Tim Wise, whose family owns the land at the southwest corner of the airport, the acquisition of which would be necessary for most plans to realign or expand the runway, said there were no plans to sell to the city.

“We have enough problems without an expansion,” Wise said. “We have no intention of selling it.”

But Howington described the grant as a way for the city to gauge community support for any plans to improve the airport, regardless of expansion, and assess what its current choices are, without infringing on any private property owners don’t want to sell.

“The reason we’re doing that is basically to go back to ground zero,” Howington said. “That’s precisely why we’re trying to do the planning grant.”

Doing so, Howington said, can help the council consider the future of the airport, as the debate between those both for and against its improvement has become one of the most intractable, and emotional, local issues.

“What kind of rational basis does the council have right now to decide which side of the aisle is correct and what are the options?” Howington said.

The decision on whether to accept the FAA grant will likely come before the council at its July 6 meeting.