No Fire, Police Layoffs as Whitefish Hammers Out Budget

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – At a three-and-a-half hour meeting that occasionally turned heated this week, the Whitefish City Council hammered out a budget plan that staves off proposed layoffs in the fire and police departments, while calling for a lesser property tax increase than expected.

The turnaround, which veers from City Manager Chuck Stearns’ preliminary budget proposal released in early June, was made possible by an anonymous $30,000 donation to the police department, higher-than-anticipated resort tax collections, and a plan within the fire department to cut expenses. Also, recent drawdowns in the law enforcement fund created more than $30,000 in revenue.

In addition, the police and fire associations have agreed to pay freezes. Stearns had initially recommended cutting two police officers, saving more than $80,000, and a paramedic-firefighter, saving about $73,000. The accepted pay freezes are worth roughly $50,000 for police and $47,856 for the fire and rescue fund.

Combined with the anonymous donation, to be paid in quarterly increments of $7,500, the pay freeze allows the police department to avoid layoffs. Meanwhile, Fire Chief Tom Kennelly said he’s found a way to cut about $25,000 in expenses to make up for what the pay freeze doesn’t cover in his department.

“It’ll be a tight year, but we’ll do it,” Kennelly said.

The Parks and Recreation Department is still slated to lay off a full-time employee as of July 31. And other dilemmas remain, including meager cash reserves, how to pay the salary of a valued Public Works employee and lingering doubt over building revenue projections.

The city must also wait to see if an agreement with the rural fire service board can be finalized, which would provide a $300,000 reserve fund to be used for fire services. City officials have been in negotiations with the Whitefish Fire Service Area board.

Council will address the remaining budget questions at an upcoming meeting in mid-August and subsequently vote on a finalized budget for fiscal year 2011.

In his preliminary budget, Stearns called for $242,000 in projected building permit and license revenues for the fiscal year. But council asked Stearns to lower that figure and at the July 20 meeting, after much discussion, council voted 3-2 to peg the figure at $200,000. Council will revisit the issue in the fall to check up on building revenues.

Councilors Chris Hyatt and Phil Mitchell were opposed, arguing that the projection is overzealous in light of a still-struggling construction market. Turner Askew was absent at the meeting.

Hyatt asked Planning and Building Director Dave Taylor if his department could handle more cuts if construction doesn’t pick up. Taylor said his department has lost three planners and two building inspectors in the last two years due to layoffs.

“It’s almost impossible to serve the public with less staff than we have now,” Taylor said.

Hyatt said he doesn’t feel comfortable subsidizing the building code fund with money from the general fund. As Hyatt continued to press Taylor, Stearns interrupted.

“Why don’t you talk to me, I’m the manager,” Stearns said.

Stearns said Taylor’s department couldn’t be diminished any further, a sentiment echoed by Mayor Mike Jenson and Councilors Ryan Friel, Bill Kahle and John Muhlfeld. If anything, Stearns said, the Parks and Recreation Department should be the first to get hit if financial problems persist, as its duties aren’t mandated like those in the Planning and Building Department.

Council also considered levying the full 24 mills approved by voters in August of 2008 to fund emergency services. The council had backed off levying the full amount because the city received a federal grant to help the city transition into 24-hour, seven-day emergency service operations.

But council disagreed over whether the city should levy nine more mills, as proposed by Stearns. Hyatt and Mitchell said everybody they’ve spoken with from the community is adamantly opposed to any tax hike in this economy. Jenson and Kahle, however, both said they know of residents who are willing to pay more in order to salvage city jobs and services.

Kahle said he would like residents to contact him to discuss their views on the debate over services versus taxes, calling it “an easy philosophical conversation to have without setting a technical (mill) amount.”

“I don’t want my taxes increased, but I don’t want my services cut,” Kahle said. “I think there’s a balance there.”

After much debate, council voted 4-1 against levying the full amount, with only Friel in favor. Muhlfeld introduced a motion to levy five mills next year and four in 2012. It passed 4-1, with Friel dissenting.

Stearns was dismayed by the vote.

“I think this is as ill-advised as you can get,” he said. “When you look at the reserves, we don’t have much to work with.”

Also at the July 20 meeting, council directed staff to find a way to save the job of a Public Works project manager. Stearns had recommended cutting the position from full time to half, but both the employee and Public Works Director John Wilson said it should be all or nothing.

Other council decisions at the meeting included: increasing parking fines from $5 to $15, decreasing the street maintenance district assessment by $100,000 and increasing the Greenway assessment by $27,000, and directing the Public Works Department to search for a used replacement loader rather than a new one.